At its f8 developer conference today, Facebook unveiled its latest plan for extending its platform almost everywhere online by allowing users to effectively turn any Web page into a Facebook page.
Through its "Open Graph" initiative, Facebook will enable members to customize a set of social features on any site and share their interactions there back on Facebook. For publishers using the company's new Graph API (application protocol interface) and other tools, it provides a way to tap into the social network's 400 million users even if they don't have their own Facebook brand page.
For Facebook itself, the move could yield a fresh trove of user data as people use upgraded social tools to exchange information with friends about their social activities and interests on other sites. That information could then potentially be used to better target ads and help Facebook monetize its large but fragmented audience.
With the formal unveiling of Open Graph, the company also said it would phase out Facebook Connect, the service the company introduced in 2008 that allows users to log onto third-party sites using their Facebook account information.
In his keynote address Wednesday, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg laid out a vision for tying all the individual social graphs around different Web properties into one larger whole. "When we connect all these graphs together, the Web is going to get a whole lot better," he said.
But the initiative could also lead to another privacy backlash for Facebook as the company encourages users to make all their Web activities more public.
The key tools for building out the Open Graph are a series of social plug-ins that other sites can install, the most important of which is Facebook's "Like" button, which allows people to indicate a preference for a given item and opens the door to sharing other site activities. That includes things like seeing what other friends have signed into a page or making a recommendation about a piece of content like an article or song.
"The vision for the Web where every site becomes social just took a major leap forward," said Sarah Hofstetter, head of emerging media and brand strategy at digital agency 360i. The one-click "Like" button instantly adds social functionality, enhancing the experience without distracting consumers from what they're doing." Facebook also introduced a toolbar that publishers can put at the bottom of their page to provide what Facebook Director of Platform Product Bret Taylor called an "all-in-one social experience" packaging the "Like" button, Facebook chat and friend list information.
Facebook said it has lined up scores of partner sites to use the new Open Graph suite of products including CNN.com and Washingtonpost. com, and has allowed a group of pre-selected sites -- Microsoft Docs, Pandora and Yelp -- to provide customization, requiring users to log in.
Analysts expect that Facebook's new social features for third-party sites will make the company an even more formidable force online. "Facebook's roaring growth is a threat to Google and other web portals, and as more developers deploy these hooks, they spread their colonies all over the Internet," noted Jeremiah Owyang, a partner at digital consulting firm Altimeter Group, in a blog post Wednesday.
But he warned that the Open Graph initiative is sure to arouse fresh concerns about privacy, an area where Facebook has a history of stumbles. "Expect continued scrutiny over privacy as Facebook struggles to go open to compete with Google, dragging along users to be more public every step of the way," he wrote.
Privacy advocates have already begun to weigh in. "They're on very thin ice here," says Electronic Frontier Foundation activism and technology manager Tim Jones.
He said one potential threat to privacy is that users might not realize that "liking" particular items will result in their names being tied to them. For instance, Jones said, he could visit a news site where his Facebook friends have indicated that they liked an article about HIV testing. "Right away, I'm going to see a list of everyone I know who says they liked that article, and it's not clear that those people understood the consequences."
Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt assured users the feature would come with clear notification. "People have been "Liking" things on Facebook for a year and have likely clicked it or seen the results in their newsfeed of their friends clicking it dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of times," he said. "In addition, we are posting a message on top of everyone's profile that explains this and points to further explanation."
"We're going to pay very close attention to this," Jones added. "For a lot of people, Facebook is the Internet." For its part, Facebook has not yet made clear how it plans to use data collected from users' activities on other sites.