Facebook's Play to Take Over the Entire Internet

Mark Zuckerberg must read NEWSWEEK. For months now, Techtonic Shifts has implored him to open up the social graph—the Facebook data that describe our friendships, tastes, and more—and share it with the world. Back in February, we wrote,"If competition breeds innovation, closed systems kill it . . . Today, there's no war over who can better mine the social graph. That's because Facebook holds the only key, and for now, we're all locked inside."

Facebook still holds the key, but yesterday it swung the door wide open. At the annual f8 conference for outside developers, CEO Zuckerberg took the stage to announce some game-changing new technologies. The first is the Web-wide "like" button. Now, when someone visits any one of hundreds of sites ranging from CNN to IMDb, he can "like" a piece of content there. That connection is automatically, intelligently integrated into your Facebook profile—if you like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Facebook understands that that's a movie, and automatically adds it to your list of favorite films. This is Facebook-as-magpie, a crowded nest to house every possible scrap of social information about its users, even if it's coming from elsewhere on the Web.

The second and more important technology is the "open graph." For the first time, outside developers can get a good look at the Facebook social graph, and use it on their own sites. In practice, that means when you go to CNN.com, CNN can show you a list of articles that have been "liked" by your friends—even if you've never been to CNN.com before, let alone created an account and signed in there.

This is the most ambitious thing to happen on the Web in a long, long time. The coverage has been breathless. A TechCrunch post carried the headline "I Think Facebook Just Seized Control of the Internet." Slate's technology writer, Farhad Manjoo, declared that "Facebook is basically going to be the Web."

The implications are enormous, and Twitter, for one, should be very, very scared. During his keynote, Zuckerberg seemed to take a dismissive swipe at the micromessaging service and its ceaseless "stream" of tweets:

The stream is ephemeral. You post something to the stream, and it's there for a few hours, and some people will see it, and then it mostly floats away. And the services that consume the stream, they don't actually form a connection between you and that restaurant, they don't actually understand the semantic relationship that exists between you and what you're connecting to.

Facebook is now going to create and store that "semantic relationship," which is both great and terrifying. Computer scientists have long envisioned a Web 3.0, a smarter Internet that understands the difference between objects, people, places, animals, etc. In other words, computers and servers should know that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an object, and in particular it's a film, and in particular a film by Michel Gondry, who is a person. Right now computers see words like "Michel Gondry" only as dumb, meaningless text. Facebook wants to change that—which is great. But it also plans to own that information—which is scary. As Web guru Dave Winer puts it, "Facebook is to be the identity system for the web. A company? That just can't work . . . Even Bill Gates didn't have the audacity to propose that!" Gates may not have it, but Zuckerberg certainly does.