Less than 10 miles down the road from Plaxo’s offices are Facebook’s, tucked away on the second floor of a nondescript office building in downtown Palo Alto. If Plaxo’s offices suggest a company redefining itself and uncertain of its future, Facebook’s are those of a highly successful startup being forced to grow up. A graffiti aesthetic dominates. A distorted face painted on the company’s elevator doors splits apart when they open, revealing other faces painted within. In the office itself, a triumphant graffiti-style fist rises beside the Facebook corporate logo.
Despite its explosive growth–it is now the second-largest social site behind MySpace, with more than 70 million active users–Facebook is still searching for a viable business model (see “Social Networking Is Not a Business,” p. 36). As part of that search, Facebook has taken steps to position itself as the social glue holding a variety of Web services together. In May 2007, it launched Platform, which allows third parties to build applications that Facebook users can install in their profiles. The result is that other sites can make their social tools available through Facebook, rather than having to build their own networks. With this strategy, Facebook hopes to circumvent the need for data portability: users can take advantage of other sites’ applications without ever leaving Facebook.
The launch of Facebook Connect this May took the idea of Platform and flipped it over. Where Platform allows people to run other applications through Facebook, Connect allows people to run Facebook through other websites: sites can add social features by building in miniature versions of Facebook. As with Platform, this means that Facebook members can use new social-networking tools without having to create new accounts or give control of their information to other companies. The service provides a kind of data portability, but the data remains subject to Facebook’s control.
“It’s not just about data portability; it’s actually about privacy portability,” says Dave Morin, Facebook’s senior platform manager. “When you go somewhere else and take those connections with you, the trust that’s been established between two people–or 5,000 people, as in the case of Scoble–continues to be maintained wherever they go.” Scoble wasn’t simply moving his own data from one place to another, argues Morin; he was moving data that belonged to his contacts. Scoble’s friends may have given him permission to access their data, but they didn’t give him permission to move it someplace where they couldn’t control it, and where they couldn’t revoke or alter Scoble’s privileged access.
With Facebook Connect, Morin says, the company hopes to let users control what happens to their personal information on all sites they use, simply by adjusting their Facebook settings. If a user decides she doesn’t like what some other site is doing with her social information, she can just rescind that site’s access to her Facebook account. Because Facebook wants to put users in charge of what happens to shared contact information, says Morin, it’s cautious about open standards; it wants to make sure they’re secure before integrating them into its site. In the meantime, he says, Facebook is content to build its own tools.