Facebook’s Hidden “Like” Isn’t Just Good For Mobile Developers, It’s Good For Facebook

Last week’s announcement from Facebook about the new ability for app developers to integrate a hidden, built-in “Like” button in their mobile applications seemed to fly under the radar. Not that it wasn’t duly covered by tech press: it was. But the deeper implications seemed to have been summed up under the banner of “this is great news for app developers”-type sentiment. It is, of course. App developers who smartly leverage Facebook integration can achieve impressive growth, even if it’s a bit manufactured at times. But more importantly, the move is great for Facebook. It has managed to introduce a toolkit that allows developers to weave Facebook’s data collection capabilities deep into the fabric of the future Internet – that is, the world of mobile apps.

First, some background. Smartphone adoption is growing at an incredible rate. Over half of the U.S.’s mobile population now owns a smartphone. Worldwide, the potential addressable markets are huge: China has 122 million users who could afford an iPhone or Android. The U.S. has 91 million, India 75 million, Japan 65 million and Brazil 34 million.

According to KPCB’s Mary Meeker, global mobile Internet traffic is also rapidly growing, and has now reached about 10% of all Internet traffic. 71% of the revenue in mobile is coming from apps, but only 29% from ads (and only 1% of U.S. ad spend currently goes to mobile). But Meeker believes that it’s only a matter of time before mobile monetization catches up.

These numbers are important to provide context. Namely, that we’re shifting into the post-PC era, a time when the way we interact with the web, with online services, and with technology as a whole, is changing. The PC era was defined by a computer in every home and then a web browser. Later, with “web 2.0,” there came a group of online applications that provided richer interactions than the static pages of the past. Meanwhile, information discovery and retrieval in the PC era evolved from online directories to search. It’s now poised to evolve yet again.

Google was – and, still is – an incredible innovation. Billions of webpages, and it knows which ones we want to see first. However, our reliance on Google.com’s search has the potential to fade somewhat in the post-PC era. A blank box, type in text, hit enter, read results, see related ads? Mobile users will operate differently. We will query up data from within an un-indexed web – the web of apps. Movie showtimes? Weather? News? Friends’ updates? Yes, this information is available on the web, but users will find the details they need by launching apps, or talking to virtual assistants like Siri who then launch the apps for them. So how does an advertising-focused company – Facebook or Google –  surface a user’s intentions and interests in this app era, outside of explicit search queries? It starts to track you in the apps, of course.

Facebook’s Open Graph, an arguably bigger player in the mobile-first future, allows Facebook to record what people are doing, and then infer what they like and what they would then want to know, based on those actions. You “played” a song in Spotify, you “read” an article, e.g. Then you clearly like Lady Gaga or reading about Politics. Right? Well, maybe. That’s a fascinating data set of user behavior, but there’s still something to be said for the explicit “Like.” It holds a different meaning. It means you not only saw/read/interacted with the content, as the Open Graph actions indicate, but you also approve/agree/support/feel good about it.

But the Facebook “Like,” still relatively new in the grand scheme of things, has already become synonymous with “market to me in my News Feed.” The decision to press the seemingly innocuous thumbs up now holds a meaning that even less technical folks have come to understand. It’s the modern equivalent of “add my name to your email distribution list.” (So far we’ve come, so little has changed.)

That’s why the “hidden” like is so interesting. It’s integrated seamlessly into the application. You’re not “Liking” a Facebook Page, you’re “Liking” an Instagram photo. And it’s not a thumbs up icon – it’s a little heart…or whatever else the developer sees fit to use. The point being: it looks like part of the app itself. It will become impossible to tell (without reading all the pop-up disclaimers and EULAs – and who does?) which in-app actions will live within the app and which populate Facebook. And that’s the idea. That’s how they getcha.

Another reason why the hidden Like is important: it allows for data collection surrounding apps’ more passive users. If you believe in the 1% rule, content creators only account for 1% of a community. Not everyone will read, watch, post, create, etc., as the Open Graph actions allow for. But a fair number will still interact – i.e., “Like” – the content others are creating in the apps. And the hidden like allows that data to be tracked.

In a (not-so-distant?) future, you can see where this is headed, in terms of advertising. A user “Likes” Instagram photos of beaches and sunsets. The user then sees ads for vacations and cruises on Facebook. A user “Likes” a friend’s Starbucks check-in in Foursquare, but has never “Liked” Starbucks’ fan page on Facebook. Now Starbucks knows to show them ads and deals. It’s the re-creation of the tracking cookie’s capabilities in a “web” where people surf mobile applications, not websites. And what could it become? The possibilities are mind-boggling. You “Like” photos of beaches, you launch a travel app to book plane tickets for a work trip and find Caribbean vacation packages are now on sale. Coincidence, or “Like” tracking? You may not know, but what’s even better, is that you may not care.