Facebook has reignited the openness debate by launching tools this week that may reshape the web and hand the company a big advantage over its competitors.
The word “open” — like “green” or “eco-conscious” — is one of the more amorphous concepts floating about the tech industry. Google touts openness while keeping its advertising and search algorithms secret. On the opposing side, Apple regularly faces heated criticism about the barriers it has erected to the app store.
The truth is, both proprietary and purely open systems have their flaws. Most companies lay somewhere in between despite their rhetoric.
Facebook’s grand idea this week was the “Open Graph.” It’s a fundamentally different way of mapping the web via people’s real social relationships and affinities toward things like music, books and local venues, instead of hyperlinks between static pages. The project involves spreading “Like” buttons around the web that record people’s preferences and having companies add metadata to their sites so Facebook can treat them almost like Fan Pages housed within Facebook’s site.
The moves sparked criticism that the company was collecting data on people’s preferences without giving them the power to port that information elsewhere and that it was compelling publishers across the web to reformat their pages to Facebook’s liking.
“Rather than using data that’s already on the web, everyone that wants to play Facebook’s game needs to go and retrofit their pages to include these new metadata types,” wrote Chris Messina, a longtime open source advocate who now works for Facebook’s much bigger rival Google. “When … Facebook gets to hoard all of the metadata and likes around the interactions between people and content, it depletes the ecosystem of potential and chaos.”
Both of Facebook’s moves carry big implications for startups that don’t want to play by the company’s rulebook. So a few have already launched counter-initiatives. Hunch co-founder and prolific angel investor Chris Dixon has helped form OpenLike, a way for people to share their preferences with multiple services. Another competitor Meebo has partnered with Google and other companies to launch XAuth, a system that lets web site owners figure out which social networks a person uses and allows them to log-in with the network of their choice.
Facebook’s own openness advocate, David Recordon, argued that the company’s moves were open. Developers can now store Facebook user data for more than 24 hours and subscribe to changes in user data in real-time. He added that any developer could make use of the new metadata that publishers add to their pages. Plus, the company has adopted OAuth, a way for users to share parts of their data like friend lists, photos or status updates, without handing over their IDs or passwords.