Today we are excited to announce an important step toward greater openness through Facebook Platform. For the first time, we’re opening the core Facebook product experience — the stream — with the new Facebook Open Stream API.
This sounds fantastic, and it is a big move, but people are already talking about how it just was not open enough. Why? Because it is only somewhat open. Facebook is obviously trying to compete with Twitter and FriendFeed, but to do that the API needs to be completely open. Marshall Kirkpatrick laments how fundamentally closed Facebook really is:
The data that Facebook controls, conversations and social connections, could be used for analysis of real-time social patterns which could lead to world-shaking new insights. Do we get access to that data? No. Why not? We don’t get that access because Facebook was built on a fundamental promise of privacy and a complex system of privacy controls.
Obviously, privacy is a good thing, especially when people are sharing photos and all sorts of personal details. However, Facebook is a business, not just a playground. By keeping everything basically closed they are ignoring a major potential revenue stream. Robert Scoble hits the nail on the head:
The real elephant in the room is “where’s the money?” The real money is in search. Yeah, I’m sure that someone at Facebook this afternoon will point out they are selling lots of display ads because they know their audience demographics pretty damn well… But the REAL money has NOT shown up for Zuckerberg and crew yet. What’s that? Search.
Facebook is a marketing gold mine. They do not even have to charge for the data directly. They could charge for the ability to search extensively within anonymized data. They could charge for the amount of data returned from queries as well. The idea is that Facebook, and many of the existing social applications, are really just first generation applications. These will be the platforms that future applications may stand on. Twitter understands this and is trying to become the platform that people cannot live without.
So, why does Facebook tease us with so many references to “open”? It is because they can not really be open due to their current privacy controls. This is a system that was over-engineered from the start. Whenever an application has more than a few basic settings, there is an obvious problem of trying be whatever the user wants them to be. If you look at the privacy settings page, you will see that it is broken into four sections. I can understand the need for the separate applications section, but separating Search and News into sections makes you wonder how difficult it is to “configure” Facebook.
Looking at the Profile settings, you will see that there are far too many options. You can separately configure 10 different options. I understand the need for privacy settings, but taking a cue from Twitter and FriendFeed may be a good idea. They have private and public feeds. That is the extent of the privacy settings.
In all honesty, they could probably have a single privacy setting for each of the privacy settings and have the same net effect. Most people probably have no interest in trying to figure out that they can keep “photos tagged of you” visible only to their network. Even if 20% or even 30% of their users want this level of detailed configuration, there is 70% of their users who never touch it because it is too complicated.
Disappointingly, Facebook will continue to tease us with “open” APIs until they can fix their security model. Hopefully they are listening to people and can change this quickly. If not, people will start to wonder whether they will ever think of themselves as a business.