Uh oh, Facebook is About to Become the Internet

By Josh Catone
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Don’t look now, but Facebook just did something brilliant. Something more important than the launch of their platform a year an half ago. Something that might just embed Facebook into the very fabric of the Internet — and that, like the title of this post, might only be mild hyperbole. It also might be dangerous.

What Facebook did was officially launch Connect to the public. We described Connect in July as a second iteration of their failed Beacon ad platform — done right (from a user perspective) the second time around. Connect is essentially a unified login platform that allows third-party sites to access Facebook user profile and social graph data from outside the social network. In essence, that means that Connect extends the Facebook platform outside of the social network’s walls, but it comes with the user privacy controls that Beacon was sorely lacking.

Connect won’t directly make Facebook money, which some might argue is the main thing the company should be focusing on right now, but it’s nonetheless a brilliant move. As we wrote in July, “Facebook realizes that the more people and web sites that come to rely on their API, the more they will become deeply ingrained in our web habits and experience, and that will put them in a better position to make money.” (Om Malik has some good ideas about how they’ll do that.)

Why Facebook Wins

What makes Connect so special, is that there is a very real possibility that it could beat competing single sign-on and data share platforms like OpenID, Google Friend Connect, and Windows Live ID. A few months ago, my friend Sarah Perez articulated why in a post at ReadWriteWeb. According to Perez, Facebook Connect wins because everyone is already using it, and they’re already invested in it. Most people don’t have social graph data at Google, most people still don’t understand what OpenID is. But “login with Facebook” makes perfect sense, and if it means a richer experience on the other end because a trusted site has access to your social data, all the better.

Rafe Needleman echoed those sentiments last week on CNET. “Because Facebook Connect is not just a registration system, but also a marketing channel with a built-in audience of 130 million monthly active users (according to Facebook), this program will crush competing registration systems,” he wrote. “Sites will adopt Facebook Connect for two reasons. First, their users are already actively using it; millions of users have OpenID log-ins and don’t even know it. And second, because it’s not just a registration system, it’s that marketing channel. Self-interest (on the part of site owners) wins over philosophy. Facebook gets that. That’s why it wins.”

According to Facebook Senior Platform Manager Dave Morin, initial tests of the system found that users were logging in via Facebook Connect over their pre-existing login credentials at a 2:1 ratio. Early real-world results have nearly borne that out.

Inside Facebook reports that after adding Facebook Connect as a login option, new users of Govit.com are choosing to login with Facebook 58% of the time. Govit founder Taylor Norrish told Inside Facebook that he thinks Facebook Connect is actually driving registration of new users. That’s a powerful statement that we’re sure other developers will pay attention to. As Needleman wrote: self-interest wins.

It’s Not All Roses

However, there are some very real concerns surrounding Facebook Connect. As Perez articulated in July, even though on the surface things look a lot better than Beacon this time around, there are potential privacy issues to be aware of. “As more of the corporate and business-oriented web adopts Friend Connect, the greater the chance for privacy intrusion,” she wrote.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has often said that providing powerful user privacy controls is a central theme for Facebook, so hopefully the company will be hyper-sensitive to privacy issues when it comes to Connect.

The other concern, the more menacing one, of course, is whether it is really a good thing for one company to be so embedded into the fabric of the Internet. “Facebook is trying to replace all logins with their own, and control the creation, distribution and application of the social graph using their proprietary platform,” says Chris Saad, a backer of OpenID. That’s a scary proposition, according to him.

If Facebook Connect does win, it might mean that Facebook is basically alone at the helm controlling our entire social experience across the web. Is that something we want?

Last May, while writing for ReadWriteWeb, I came to the conclusion that Facebook would become the mainstream everything. New services and innovations that excite early adopters, would eventually reach the mainstream via Facebook.

I also guessed at the time that “mainstream users, by and large, are fine with their data staying in one place.” That was (and is) probably true. But now, Facebook is attempting to teach mainstream users why data portability is such a great thing — however, they’re doing it on their own terms, and controlling the process all the way through.

Facebook has figured out a way to take the ideas of the Open Web and bend them to their own benefit. It’s brilliant and a little bit scary.

What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments.

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  • Bill

    Remember when that was AOL?

  • Yeah well, haven’t we had such things in past?? Microsoft’s .NET Passport failed & then there was this great buzz about OpenID & how its gonna take over the world!! what happened is something that we all know – OpenID is still struggling, eh!! ;)

  • Doug Aitken @takealeft

    I totally agree, Facebook Connect will be huge!

  • @asp_funda: The difference, though, is that neither Passport (now LiveID) or OpenID had the social component. Facebook Connect is three things:

    1. It’s a single sign-on platform like those others you mentioned
    2. It’s a marketing channel, since what you do on third party sites can be copied back to your Facebook news feed for your friends to see
    3. It’s a data portability play, allowing you to bring your social graph data to other sites for a (hopefully) richer experience

    Passport and OpenID only have 1 out of 3 of those points. Plus, Facebook is more familiar to people than OpenID, so it wins for that reason, too.

    You could be right, and this could just be hyperbole — and that might be for the best. Facebook as the social web is a mildly frightening prospect. ;)

  • Joel

    why it loses: more and more companies are preventing access to social sites during work hours, making anything dependent on it that isn’t performed via a “server side” applied API (as opposed to “client side”) require a redundant path to operate. Will be interesting to watch – remembering that MySpace was “the internet” not long back.

  • Anonymous

    Oh sh..t! Well I am a facebook user, and I do keep in contact with all my friends and family through it, and it will be good to have it more integrated, it will save time and effort on all sides, but why do I feel like…well, like, oh sh..t! Well I think it will be different, facebook is so prolific, and it is getting bigger! and I totally see this taking over the internet… for normal users anyway, I am concerned about security though…

  • franglix

    Facebook may be something terribly important to the majority of ‘us’, but aren’t all the commentators becoming a little bit too excited and not managing to distinguish their wood from their trees?
    One lesson I have taken on from my experience of the net is that if you hang out with a group/application/feed long enough, it becomes your norm and you can’t imagine the world existing outside it. You perceive it as THE way the world is put together and you lose sight of the external and sometimes the world that the world existed before it.
    I follow RWW and they are fascinated by its development (for good reason), but apart from the growth, and the 130 million alleged FB users, where are the figures for the other 2/3 data portability competitors. Sure someone is scared – read kicking themselves for not having the 3/3 position – but is this really just another storm in a wooden teacup until that killer app arrives?

  • The good that I see in this is that, if they are indeed evangelizing it correctly, it may make “the mainstream” aware of the importance of data portability. However, data portability is just one aspect of owning one’s own data. The bad that I see in this is that there’s no provision for substituting Facebook Connect with something else.

    Josh, you just wrote a great article about why relying on “free” services for critical operations is a potentially dangerous thing to do. I see this as very much the same thing from a user’s perspective; savvy users and especially businesses will be very much concerned about using Facebook and only Facebook for control of their social data. The more control Facebook gets of the mainstream the more this small group will grow, preferring to roll their own solutions.

    So I’d be concerned for the people whose “homepages” are their Facebook profiles and who use its messaging systems over ones like email, but I’m pretty sure those people think Facebook is the Internet already.

  • Hierophant

    Looks like they are putting the $240 million that they got from Microsoft last year to good use. Since Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! all use OpenID now as their internal providers, this is probably based on the same concept. Of course, I am sure that Microsoft’s implementation is a blend of Passport and OpenID but as long as it works for their sites, as a consumer I don’t care.

  • Tarh

    I am concerned about security though…

    If you were truly concerned about security (privacy is probably more applicable here) you wouldn’t have a Facebook account.

  • JS

    So, Facebook now wants me to use a Facebook login for all the other sites I visit.

    Meh? Wot’s all this then?

    I think I understand what you’re saying about how awesome this is from the perspective of businesses and service providers. But what (aside from not having to remember another password) do I get from it as a user? And if I just care about not remembering another password, why don’t I just have Firefox remember the password for me?

    I suppose I could be making this comment with my Facebook login instead of anonymously, without jumping through the hoops of registering on your site. But if that’s the best this has to offer me—I trade easier logins on random sites for automatic aggregation of every stupid thing I’ve ever said—then I really don’t see why I as a user would be tempted to use this.

    But, to be honest, I still don’t really “get” why I’m supposed to care so much about Facebook in the first place, so obviously I’m an Internet Outlier anyway.

  • momos

    Seems like you always have a choice, maybe Google Connect someone?

  • The Conspiracy Theorist

    I don’t have a facebook account for the very reason of privacy.

    I’m sure that this has been the thought of the author and many of the readers – for the facebook fanatics I would like you to consider for a moment your online presence.

    Most of what you’ve ever searched for, most of the things you’ve downloaded, bought, looked at, written or interacted with in any other way are stored by google (via gmail, youtube, google search and blogger) and facebook perhaps we could throw in something like flickr and twitter but basically everything you’ve ever said or done online is owned by two groups.

    Forget privacy, forget any sort of intellectual property or anything. This is why the world hated Microsoft, the owned everything. Microsoft only owned your interface though, google and facebook own your data as well.

  • webdev3000

    Hopefully it’ll be more secure/properly managed than facebook, sites that bleed php code over the screen shouldn’t be trusted with this kind of power.

  • Add

    What’s to stop people putting a “login with facebook” button on their sites and stealing details from users who aren’t savvy enough to realise they’re not on the real facebook connect?

  • roosevelt

    Majority of the people know about facebook than openid. I guess the word OpenId sounds technical.

    For an average user logging in with facebook userid/password is more quick and easy then configure openid account for other sites using openid, etc…

    Facebook is making a good amount of progress, and I am pretty sure if they become powerful enough Google might make another billion dollar offer or facebook could launch their own search engine ;)

    Either way, if I find that, it will benefit my business adopting facebook, by all means, I am up for it :-)

  • Skweekah

    I think that it’s brilliant what facebook have done. Theyve had a vision about a fantastic concept, placed it into practice, hoped that the world would accept it, and the rest is history. I doubt for a moment a techno geek out there would not like to be at the helm of facebook, or at least involved in some way. Long live facebook, and anyone else who dares to think outside the square.

  • Keith

    What’s to stop people putting a “login with facebook” button on their sites and stealing details from users who aren’t savvy enough to realise they’re not on the real facebook connect?

    You’re giving them ideas! I see that as being successful and more successful the quicker they try and pull it off. A lot of dumb users out there.

    A monopolistic touch to anything can sometimes feel good. Look back when there was only one browser we had to worry about coding for. One less thing to worry about.

    This makes account administration one less thing to worry about. But it may give systems less abilities. Like what if they wanted to send an email to all their “users”. Could they do it if users just logged in with their facebook accounts?

    Does anyone have an answer to that?

  • roosevelt

    This makes account administration one less thing to worry about. But it may give systems less abilities. Like what if they wanted to send an email to all their “users”. Could they do it if users just logged in with their facebook accounts?

    Does anyone have an answer to that?

    I don’t know if Facebook has a certain rules for this. But, you can track the people who are logging in.

    For example, Using a form you would accept the user’s email/password and authenticate with facebook, after facebook pings you back saying that the user has logged in, you certainly can retrieve the email address from the form and store it your own local database.

    But if that feature is not available, then you would have to make a facebook application that would force the users to accept to receive periodic emails and such. And through that facebook application, people would login to your website.

    I hope it doesn’t too technical.

  • kurt

    Why do people write meaningless articles like this???

    They are making a hoopla about nothing… Not worth the time to read.

  • sporkbox

    There’s a reason I got rid of my Facebook account. With this around the corner it’s even more foreboding. Companies and organizations should A. keep your data safe, private, and secure, and B. Honor any request you have to delete said data. I read a blog post a while back that outlines a long and arduous process you have to go through in order to completely delete your Facebook account. All because Facebook does not have such an option.

    Users that don’t have control over their data are ****ed. The problem is that the majority of users out there are ignorant and/or gullible, and the big companies know that. If they can monopolize one’s presence on the Internet, what’s to stop them from exerting that influence in the real world, where /real/ social consequences can occur?

  • Andy Mo

    Im surprised pay pal didn’t sort this out ages ago.

  • Matt

    Don’t have a Facebook account. Don’t have a Bebo account. Don’t use M$ ID, I do have an OpenID but never use it. Simply – I just don’t trust something as vast as the web with my private personal data. I live in the UK, and I don’t trust a company in another country – be that the US, Australia, Germany, or the North Pole – to REALLY look after my private data. Heck – I don’t even trust our own government to look after my data – recent high-profile cock-ups prove me right on that. I have a right to privacy – and, no, I have nothing to hide so can we get that one out of the way – I’m just a private person. I’m also a divisional IT manager, I design large PHP/PEAR and MySQL driven intranet sites for internal production purposes with full BI reporting and dashboards so I’m aware of what can be gleaned from odd sources. And I do actually love the Internet. Really! I do.

  • James

    I suppose facebook could begin blocking your access to competitor websites if they choose.

  • Mychillingspot

    I hate facebook, the new website call http://www.mychillingspot.com will be future of social networking facebook better watch his back…lol

  • bmmNM

    Having worked toward “portable data” since the early SGML days, this is just another ho-hum gimmick insofar as meaningful business application of portable data.

    Like all the “Web 2.0” hype, it’s good at what it does, but really doesn’t reinvent anything (from a business standpoint) that hasn’t existed for a long time already. Web 1.0 works just fine folks … painting pretty pixels and finding an “everyman” face on it doesn’t make it the be all and end all of data interchanges.

    Especially in the case of companies (including the government) that are by law required to share data, but also ensure that privacy laws and other security of information is maintained.

    So hurray for FaceBook for finding a new way to implement existing technology. But to say they have redefined something outside of a social usage perspective is not only premature, it’s downright ignorant.

    former SGML/XML expert, US GPO
    former XML SME/Developer IBM

  • bmmNM

    As a ps:

    While FaceBook is popular on the World Wide Web part of the Internet, it is emphatically not the whole Internet, nor is it likely it will ever be.

  • What I see is Facebook and Run Around merge and they become the Internet, is that right?

  • eddie thieda

    I think it’s all in how you use it. For social sites it will make sense and ease the registration process at the same time. Another bonus is having friendlier visitors who want to use your site to make comments.

  • hugozap

    Another apocalyptical post…
    If you pay attention, you can find all kinds of news like these one but with other companies/products. According to these types of posts, the users wont have any choices but only one Company. Its been years the same thing and with all kind of technologies…

    (forgive my english)

  • graphicmist

    Well i can’t understand why do they fear of their personal data over internet. Even if you are a billionaire or someone popular and u think someone can misutilize your information or plan some con on you is the only threat. someone will do wrong with u only if u have done wrong with someone.

    by the way im a geek and love to try out and play with all the technologies and i think facebook will rule only till a new powerful app come. This is internet world.it cant be stable someone will think something new.

  • Damn. it’s true