UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Facebook Is Getting Better

Posted by Brian Kelly on 2 Jan 2008

Whisper it, but has anybody noticed the various developments to Facebook which seems to be making it a better environment to work in?

There have been developments to the user interface, such as the Facebook status no longer has to start with “Brian is …” and messages delivered via email now contain the contents of the message, and not just the URI you have to go to in order to read the message.  Simple developments, but much welcomed by many Facebook users, I suspect.

It is also pleasing to see serious service providers providing access to their services through Facebook – just before Christmas, for example, Lorcan Dempsey commented on the availability of the Worldcat application for Facebook, which is illustrated below.

Worldcat for Facebook

The research community is also engaging with Facebook.  I have recently joined the Facebook: Academic Research group which describes itself as “A group for anyone conducting (or interested in) academic research into Facebook. This includes sociologists, computer scientists, psychologists, information scientists, computer scientists, educators, philosophers, etc.

I also noticed recently that several of my friends had joined The Semantic Web – Benefits, Education & Outreachgroup. I must admit that I was very pleased to see the pragmatic approach which is being taken by many of the Semantic Web evangelists in this group. One message addressed the question “Why create a facebook group to discuss the semantic web?” by suggesting “for the same reason tv shows are advertised on radio and tv schedules are listed in newspapers and magazines. You have to reach out to people where they are if you want to bring them somewhere new.

In this group a thread on Getting FaceBook to open up provided a link to the Facebook Foaf Generator software which has been written by Mathew Rowe, a PhD student at Sheffield University.  The Foaf Generator is “a tool that generates a Foaf file from your Facebook profile, compiled from the information that Facebook has stored about you. It also includes details about your friends, along with geographical placement of your current location or hometown“.

Visualisation of FOAF file created from Facebook dataAs someone who has written a paper which explored the potential of FOAF back in 2004 I was intrigued by the possibility of making my Facebook data available as a FOAF file and then using a FOAF application to view the data. So I installed the application and created a FOAF file of my Facebook contacts. I explored several FOAF viewers before deciding that the Tabulator widget for the Opera Web browser seemed to provide the richest interface, and a screen shot of this is shown. 

What, then, does this show? Well it does seem to be possible to extract data from Facebook and make it available for use by other applications.  

Has the problem of data being trapped within Facebook now been solved? I don’t think so – remember that this is an experimental prototype developed by a PhD student, so there can be no guarantee of the quality of the service or that it will be available on a long term basis. And one simple experiment isn’t enough to explore how sophisticated (or not) the data export capabilities are. Perhaps more interestingly, though, are the ethics of exporting personal data to other applications.  The data I have received from my friends (their photos, contact details, interests, etc.)  has only been made available once we have mutually accepted friendship invitations.  Wouldn’t making a FOAF file of such data openly available infringe the implied privacy settings?   Or to put it another way, although Facebook may be improving, could it become too open?


9 Responses to “Facebook Is Getting Better”

  1. Paul Walk said

    Good to see the word “is” become optional in Facebook status messages, but I’m not sure this was the most exciting development on the web this past month ;-)

    The FOAF development is quite interesting though. Does it point to a certain naivete, perhaps, in the assumption that we can control access to the profile data we use for ‘social networking’? After all, we are putting our content in the hands of a commercial enterprise which will succeed or fail on its ability to create the richest possible networks and the maximum exposure of such content. Facebook itself has been seen to be unsophisticated, and even clumsy, in its treatment of profile exploitation (witness the ‘Beacon’ debacle) and its handling of access control in RSS which I wrote about here.

    So, could Facebook become too open? Certainly it could become too open for its own good. With OpenSocial in the wings, Facebook must surely maintain its lock-in to stay viable. By opening up, Facebook would maintain first-mover-advantage, but it has shown itself to be less than entirely competent at exploiting its head-start – this leading position could quickly be eroded. Beacon was to be the killer application -it’ll be interesting to see what Fb tries next.

  2. Hi Paul – The Campaign to get the ‘is’ removed from facebook status updates group has 11,984 members. It was set up on 22nd August 2007 and by the end of August had 1,802 members. So clearly significant numbers of Facebook users cared about this minor change (although there’s now a backlash: “‘Is’ kept people creative! now it’s exactly like myspace headlines; useless and dull!“).

    This makes me wonder whether, as you suggest, we may see a similar backlash if data in Facebook continues to made accessible outside of the Facebook environment.

  3. Mike said

    I like the lack of “is” but I’m amused at how many people still type it in :-)

    I’ve always really liked Facebook but I’m bothered about its longevity. It seems to me like a quick “I love it” hit but without any enduring *use* over the longer term. Now if they opened up their damn social graph to the outside world, then we’d be talking…

    Unless it changes radically, I’ve got a bet on with myself that Facebook will be displaced during 2008 as the social application of choice. I reckon people are going to start finding that way too much spam is being created by the various applications and that actually the original USP (follow the activities of your mates) has been buried under volume of noise generated.

  4. Paul Walk said

    The Campaign to get the ‘is’ removed from facebook status updates group has 11,984 members. It was set up on 22nd August 2007 and by the end of August had 1,802 members. So clearly significant numbers of Facebook users cared about this minor change

    Well, 0.02% of active users cared enough to join the group…. I’ll accept that the other 58,988,016 people were probably in tacit support ;-)

  5. Hi Paul – I guess the ‘Campaign to get the ‘is’ removed from facebook’ would be limited to English speakers, so the percentage is likely to be higher.

    But rather than the percentages of the entire Facebook population (it might be more relevant to make comparisons with other advocacy groups.

    I’ve found the following:

    Are there 100,000 people for open data in Facebook? – 484 members

    Are there 100,000 people who believe Facebook should open source? – 72 members

    Facebook – Please don’t open up! – 1,013 members

    So, with 11,984 members it seems clear that many more people care about content (the ‘is’ word) than the underlying technology. Of course the hot topics are ones such as
    i bet i can find a million ppl that want smoking back in pubs (15,924 members) and
    I bet I can find a million ppl that DON’T want smoking back in pubs (23,263 members)

  6. Hi Brian,

    If anyone is interested I’ve got a couple of posts up on our blog about making Facebook pages…and the ArtShare application we developed.

  7. […] Facebook Is Getting Better […]

  8. Yep, interesting issues. I’ve been playing with the FOAF exporter app too (Matthew GPL’d it) and am working up an installation which might use PGP, bloom filters or other such trickery to allow export without over-exposure, or at least make some moves to that end. Curious times we live in :)

  9. […] ça va mieux? Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) estime dans ce billet que Facebook s’améliore. Il a l’air convaincu, en tout […]

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