How @-Referencing on Facebook will Create a New Social Semantic Web

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.

My status update @-referencing Steve Garrity (friend) and 'The Facebook Era' (Page)

My status update @-referencing Steve Garrity (friend) and 'The Facebook Era' (Page)

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

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19 Responses to “How @-Referencing on Facebook will Create a New Social Semantic Web”

  1. Tweets that mention The Facebook Era» Blog Archive » How @-Referencing on Facebook will Create a New Social Semantic Web -- Says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Albert Lai and Kontagent. Kontagent said: New Use of @ social objects = new facebook semantic web — well explained by @clarashih here > [...]

  2. Stephanie Says:


    Cheers to you on continuing the trailblazing/pioneering! GREAT article/post that is MUCH needed b/c of al the “non-techies” still learning about the importance of social media, especially FB, and their power.

    In sharing this “non-techie” reference I invite you to reflect on/explore all the millions of people that are these “non-techies” that will not even be able to understand/grasp the “awkwardness” you shared your associate Charlie pointed out as they are still embracing the basic learning curve(s) with FB and not yet at even knowing/understanding the “awkwardness…”

    This understanding/grasp/even noticing it is reserved for the techies like you/Charlie/your other alliances! :) This is why we need your “trailblazing/pioneering” b/c you so eloquently help others embrace up-to-the-minute-current events like the unparalleled “@-referencing post” :) you had posted whithin hours of the global buzz about this awesome feature! :) Thank you…….

    Cheering you/your continued success on…..Steph~ :)

  3. Esteban Kolsky Says:


    I think there are two parts to this post, and both are equally important.

    As a passionate supporter and patient advocate of semantically connecting entities, I am totally and violently in agreement with the first part. The ability to add metadata to a relationship (where the metadata complements the implicit knowledge of the relationship) between entities certainly begins to build the semantic web. We still have the issue of assuming that entities are properly built and described — but this is a huge first step.

    The use of Facebook as a private network where to deploy this — not so sure.

    My perspective: each community is built or transforms into a specific purpose. My second life is a community for gamers-like who want to connect and relate aside from the real world. MySpace is a place where musicians can exchange exposure and fans. Facebook is a place where friends can stay notified about each other, and share photos.

    None of them had as a purpose for brands to know who is related to whom, or for marketers to learn whether we are more like Beethoven or Bach. You probably noticed the slow death of second-life once marketers took over, and MySpace suffered a similar fate (between commercialization and spammers).

    Facebook had its first backslash once people began to figure out what was involved in using all those funny apps - the loss of privacy and the intrusion of marketers into the relationships that users held pretty dear.

    Further, focusing on a specific private network to release a semantic tool is wrong not only because of the intrusion into the community member’s privacy and trust, but also because unless we end up all using facebook as the only network for everything we do - you are collecting a adding value to data in a place where usage is limited at best. If you cannot take those semantic implications out of facebook and use them in real life (say, like merge them with Goggle’s metadata about users and pages and pictures, etc.) then the very limited value it has will decrease as the network begins to decay (all communities suffer that fate, remember the Well? Compurserve? AOL? can you imagine the amount of knowledge lost with each one?)

    I would totally applaud facebook as having done the correct thing if they would have figured out a way to apply those semantics to the entire web. As it is, I see it as another step towards its demise since it will alienate users that are not comfortable or in agreement withe the “new way of working”.

  4. admin Says:

    @Esteban, I respectfully disagree :)

    Facebook significantly differs from any of the earlier walled gardens for a few important reasons.
    1. Open platform. By aggressively opening up via APIs, platform, and most recently Facebook Connect, Facebook preempted a lot of potential frustration and competition by giving people “just enough” access to data in what is really a proprietary network. Effectively, Facebook is allowing and encouraging openness while retaining control. I think of Facebook like Singapore, which provides limited freedom within bounds but behind the scenes is a benevolent dictatorship which generally makes pretty good decisions on behalf of its people.

    2. Trusted identity. Sociology research shows that all else equal, real-world relationships last longer than virtual-only relationships. Facebook was built around real offline networks like schools and employers, and unlike MySpace or SecondLife created a norm of only initiating and accepting friend requests from people you actually know. MySpace and other social networking sites have failed because you didn’t actually know your connections.

    3. Strict opt-in nature. Facebook and Twitter are 100% opt-in. If you’re sick of hearing from a brand, you can hide their updates, unfan, or unfollow. Yes, Facebook and Twitter are giving brands new tools to reach individuals, but the key difference to keep in mind is that individuals can always opt out. There are no marketing lists and spamming allowed. Facebook also built in strict privacy controls to let individuals choose exactly what information they want to share with whom, including whether they want to allow someone who isn’t a friend to message them, add them as a friend, or even see them in a search result.

    At their peak, AOL, Compuserve, and Second Life never broke past 30 million users. MySpace had 125M last time I checked, but Facebook has lapped them.

    Which is not to say that Facebook is invincible (no one is), but I it does mean it may have much greater staying power, as evidenced by its continued remarkable growth and people’s willingness to forgive what I agree have been some big mistakes - privacy concerns around first newsfeed and then Beacon, content ownership, and platform ToS. Certainly Facebook needs to learn from these mistakes in order to continue being successful.

    In principle, I, like you, want the semantic web to be 100% free and open versus on a proprietary network. The reality is the web has become the wild west, and people are flocking to order and to what they trust. They trust friends, and so far Facebook has done the best job of organizing people’s friends. Philosophically, I am still gunning for open standards to win in the long term for both the social web and semantic web, but it hasn’t been looking good so far.

    Thanks for this fun intellectual debate.

  5. Tweets that mention The Facebook Era» Blog Archive » How @-Referencing on Facebook will Create a New Social Semantic Web -- Says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lisa Jacobson Brown. Lisa Jacobson Brown said: Facebook Era author Clara Shih explains why @-mentions change Facebook’s entire strategy #Facebook #socialmedia #scrm [...]

  6. Esteban Kolsky Says:


    I am glad we can disagree in a civilized manner. I see your points, and I somewhat agree with them, but still have concerns about having a sandbox only to test the semantic world (yes, a large sandbox indeed).

    Besides, the biggest problem I see is that facebook is setup for friends (as you agreed in your text - ok, somewhat :)) not for business. there is a clear delineation in each community on the purpose which is controlled by the community. as long as the community can control the onslaught of business, then we will be fine. if they cannot control it, that is when communities die.

    i think there are a couple of things that facebook could do to encourage biz and personal to merge in the same network - probably the most important would be to allow users to create separate personas and sub-communities to manage as they please (if i don’t want biz to get access to my personal community and or information, i should be able to manage that). they are not doing that today, but that would make their network become a de-facto for both personal and biz (it si somewhat for personal today). if i could use each group as a sub-community (there was talk of that about a month ago, then it died) then I am 1,000% in agreement of using facebook for biz.

    until then, we will just continue to disagree (slightly) on how and when to use it.

    thanks for the wonderful conversation and the platform.

  7. The Facebook Era» Blog Archive » @-referencing on Facebook: The … – The Facebook News Says:

    [...] admin wrote an interesting post today onThe <b>Facebook</b> Era» Blog Archive » @-referencing on <b>Facebook</b>: The <b>…</b>Here’s a quick excerpt [...]

  8. Scott Says:

    I agree with Esteban’s last post- facebook is for friends. Only certain kinds of businesses will really benefit from the business aspects of facebook. Twitter is a good platform for separating business and personal aspects more completely. I’d liken this to the way that most people on linkedIn also have a Facebook profile. Different usage, and I find it hard to imagine putting my resume on Facebook and expecting that to help my career. But having my work experience in my work-network on linkedIn sure has helped. (And so has being connected on twitter, thanks to my wife for prodding me into it)

    I understand the temptation of FB and others to branch into areas they aren’t currently in, but I would remind everyone of the strong value of knowing what you’re good at and getting better at it - because the world of FB at 200mln users is so different than the world of FB at 10mln users… and its more important to get that right than to figure out how to kill twitter (or linkedin, or… )

  9. The Facebook Era» Blog Archive » @-referencing on Facebook: The … – The Facebook News Says:

    [...] admin wrote an interesting post today onThe <b>Facebook</b> Era» <b>Blog</b> Archive » @-referencing on <b>Facebook</b>: The <b>…</b>Here’s a quick excerpt [...]

  10. Hoop Says:

    I don’t generally care for pure business stuff in my friend network but I want XBox in there and I want it in there in a more tightly integrated manner than it is today. Adding more b2c in facebook seems fine to me as long as you respect my privacy.

    I agree that from a resource perspective, it’s a good idea to focus on what you do best first but I think the value of facebook simply as a way to tell me how my friends from high school are doing is a very severe limitation of the potential here. There’s more to friend oriented social networks than that.

    One area where twitter clearly beats facebook out (on the friendships front) is in discovering new friends. I meet more people I want to “follow” on twitter simply because their implicit, ad-hoc social graphs end up leading me to them.

    I don’t personally think facebook is wining any efforts to be the closed network du jour. if we see more technologies like web-finger, js-kit echo and the wave federation protocol adopted by content sources, there will be a forcing function towards a more federated social networking world.

    *shrug* I guess fundamentally I don’t believe that links are content that can be locked in a proprietary way. the nodes in the graph will live where they want, the arcs will not be controlled.

  11. The Facebook Era» Blog Archive » Notes from Facebook f8 Developer Conference: The Open Graph Says:

    [...] Note: This is going to be HUGE for the semantic web (see my post on this from last September). [...]

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