With Open Graph, Facebook Sets Out To Make The Entire Web Its Tributary System

Screen shot 2009-10-29 at 2.08.26 AMFrom Wikipedia: A tributary is a stream or river which flows into a main stem (or parent) river. Facebook wants every site on the web to be a tributary. And it wants to be the main river.

Today, amid the hoopla that Facebook was once again making changes to its site which may or may not make things more difficult for developers, something big was largely overlooked. To me, the more interesting thing was the new API Facebook briefly unveiled: The Open Graph API.

To say details are vague at this point is being overly generous. But, the key idea is in place, and was presented today. Basically, the Open Graph API is a way for Facebook to allow other companies, sites, services, etc to interact with Facebook without having to create a dedicated Facebook Page. Big deal, you might think — isn’t that what Connect is? Yes, to an extent, but it would seem that the idea here is to go way past that.

With the Open Graph API, Facebook wants to allow anyone to take their own site and essentially wrap it in a Facebook blanket. This doesn’t necessarily mean in a visual way, but rather that these sites which use the APIs will be able to replicate many of the core Facebook functionality on their own sites. Facebook isn’t being more specific at this time about what elements would be included in this, and when I spoke briefly to new Director of Product Management for Platform, Bret Taylor (fresh from the FriendFeed acquisition), about it afterwards, he made it very clear that many of the details are still being ironed out and thought up.

Still, it’s not hard to imagine what this will be. During his presentation, Facebook’s Head of Platform, Ethan Beard, laid out the Open Graph as essentially a Facebook Fan Page for any site on the web. So you can imagine that you might be able to create a Facebook-style Wall to include on your site, but able to update your statuses from your site, leave comments, like items, etc. Again, it’s like a Facebook Page, but it would be on your site. And you can only include elements you want, and leave out others.

The idea is to keep expanding Facebook’s social graph, and more importantly, it’s social reach. As I’ve described it so far, this API doesn’t sound like much of a tributary. But it is. Using the APIs, the data will also flow back from these sites to Facebook. Even if the site/brand doesn’t have a Facebook Fan Page, elements created on this page by other visitors will be sent back to Facebook and placed on their Walls or in their Streams, etc.

This is a very smart play by Facebook (assuming they can pull it off, of course). Connect is already massively successful. It’s becoming more and more rare to go to a popular site on the web that doesn’t implement it in some way (even if it’s just for commenting). But in many ways, Connect doesn’t go far enough. If Facebook truly wants to be the main hub of social data on the web, it needs more data coming in from more sites, and Open Graph can provide that.

With it, they don’t need to convince every site to make a Facebook Fan Page, those sites themselves can be their own Facebook Fan Page. And the data still flows.

There’s another reason why this is a brilliant maneuver: Facebook has no shortage of critics who say it’s too closed-off, or “sandboxed.” By extending Facebook functionality outside of Facebook proper (something the team really played up today at the event), it would seem that Facebook is taking a step in the right direction. And it is, to a certain extent. But again, let’s be clear, the end goal for this is still to make Facebook the social center of the web.

Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong or nefarious about that. But rival companies, like Google, undoubtedly will not like this. They may say the right bland things in public after PR combs out any hostility in comments, but Facebook and Google remain very much at odds when it comes to the social web — and naturally, control of it. Google would undoubtedly prefer sites use Open Social, but giving users the options to do things with a social entity (social is the keyword there) that is well known to them, Facebook, will be a very enticing proposition for a lot of sites.

And another announcement from today my further propel Facebook blanketing the web with its socialness. Now that Facebook has decided it will share user email addresses with developers, Connect could become even bigger. As Yammer founder David Sacks tweeted tonight, “Now that Facebook is willing to share user emails, Facebook Connect will become default signup for most websites.” That’s an interesting thought.

One stream to rule them all?

[photo: flickr/three slow]