Tuesday, September 15th, 2009
I haven’t blogged more than 160 characters in a long time. Not since The Facebook Era came out in April. Things have been busy with my book tour. But today, I break my hiatus, because Facebook’s recent announcement around @-referencing, or status tagging, is too important not to discuss.
Everyone keeps likening the new @-reference feature on Facebook to Twitter. In reality, Facebook @-referencing is much, much bigger news - perhaps in disguise. Facebook has far more data about us than Twitter does (and far more metadata about that data), and starting now, it will be able to structure and link this data to create a sort of new social semantic web. Each of us who uses Facebook is going to help them build it.
Twitter is certainly to thank for the inspiration. It pioneered asymmetric relationships (ie, I can follow you without you following me back). People @-referencing each other generate an implicit social graph (based on what we say) while people following one another generate an explicit social graph (based on an action we take).
Prior this announcement, Facebook had only an explicit social graph, based on people initiating and accepting friend requests. With the availability of @-referencing, Facebook can now also build an implicit social graph of people talking about each other.
But Facebook has another major differentiating strength: social objects, like photos, events, applications, groups, and Pages. And it is their decision to bring @-referencing not just to people (been there, done that with Twitter) but also to these social objects that makes this announcement so exciting and game-changing.
In the past, Facebook’s social objects pointed to people (people tagged in photos, event invitees, application users, group members, Page fans), but the reverse did not hold true: people could not reference other people or any of these social objects in their status updates or wall posts. The new @-referencing feature on Facebook gives us an intelligent and structured way to reference both people and social objects from status updates and wall posts. Now, anything and anyone on Facebook can reference anything or anyone else.
By intelligent and structured, I mean that the reference also contains metadata about what kind of thing is being referenced - ie, whether it’s a person, event, application, group, or Page (Twitter only has the person part nailed). Intelligent and structured are what you need for a semantic web. Twitter hashtags are just tags - but Facebook’s new “status tagging” actually points to an object and has metadata about what kind of object it is.
This means that over time, Facebook will start to build an implicit graph of people and objects in addition to its existing explicit friend graph - a powerful combination with many applications, including search, brand analytics, finding influencers, and creating more opportunities for brands and people to engage fans and friends.
For example, individuals will be able to write on many walls at once, write on a friend or Page’s wall by mentioning the friend or Page in their status update, and select exactly which “Paris Hilton” they mean (at least among the set of so named social objects on Facebook) - the hotel, celebrity, perfume, or footwear.
Brands will love @-referencing because they’ll be able to track their full sphere of influence beyond just what fans say on a fan Page, minus the noise of Twitter search or current limitations of Facebook Lexicon. (I imagine they’ll roll @-reference analytics into Lexicon at some point). @-referencing is important for CRM, too, which as relational databases are inherently structured and to date have struggled to dedupe and make sense of unstructured user-generated content from social networking sites. This announcement will make social CRM efforts more realizable and complete.
The structured social object graph will enable a social semantic web on Facebook. Instead of having to rely solely on fancy natural language processing, link resolution and de-duping algorithms to guess what people are saying, Facebook has empowered its users with @-referencing to bring structure and make sense of traditionally unstructured data.
There is one thing that is kind of awkward about @-referencing of certain social objects. As former lead Facebook platform engineer Charlie Cheever pointed out to me, it may feel unnatural to always use the full official Page name for things – for instance, saying “getting coffee at [Starbucks Coffee Company]” instead of just “getting coffee at sbux.”
Still, I think that is a minor flaw users can easily forgive and/or for which Facebook will figure out a fix. It doesn’t detract from the incredible potential around a social semantic web.
In the past, several introductions of new features became defining moments for Facebook’s success: 1) socially engineering the site around offline networks like schools and employers to encourage real relationships, 2) newsfeed to provide ongoing incentives to come back to the site, and 3) Facebook Connect to expand Facebook’s influence and sources of data. @-referencing, if people actually use it, has the potential to make that list.
* Thanks also to Eric Ries for feedback on this post before it went live