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Facebook“Likes”Locking and Leveraging Your Data

Facebook seems unstoppable. The community boasts more than 400 million users, half of whom log on at least once a day, and 35 million of whom update their status at least once a day.  In the first week of March, its traffic increased 185 percent compared to the same time last year, briefly beating out Google for most-visited site in the U.S. And according to comScore, it commands a 41 percent share of unique visitors to top social media sites, including Twitter, YouTube, MySpace and Ning.

But history suggests that when it comes to destination sites, what goes up must come down.  And Facebook has apparently learned a few lessons from AOL, Friendster and MySpace.  Facebook Connect and Facebook’s recent announcement to extend its popular “Like” feature to the rest of the Internet point to strategic shifts intended to help it avoid a similar fate.  In a decidedly Google-like move, Facebook wants to follow you outside of its walls and become a more integral part of your entire Internet experience.

Facebook’s concerns and apparent sense of urgency are justified.  According to iStrategyLabs, the fastest growing demographic segments on Facebook are the 35-54 and 55+ age groups, with 328 percent and 922 percent year-over-year growth respectively.  How long will the cool kids stay at the party after mom, dad and aunt Milly show up with their Barry Manilow albums and a pigs-in-a-blanket platter? And at the macro level, some argue we’re already witnessing the gradual demise of websites as a general platform.  How can Facebook stay ahead of the game if these trends continue?

By extending its “Like” feature at f8, Facebook provides a new utility beyond its borders – a distributed play to make Facebook a stickier part of its users’ internet experiences.  This move means Facebook could extend its reach into human-based, social-network-driven search.  For example, combining an algorithmic search for a restaurant in your area with the “Like” data of people you know and trust has tremendous potential.

The strategy also opens up the opportunity to monetize data in new ways, connecting “liked” sites and content to the rich lifestyle data of Facebook’s individual users.  The average Facebook user “likes” nine pieces of content per month.  And each one of those clicks is an invaluable piece of tracking data for marketers.  Imagine for a moment the oftentimes poorly targeted, personalized advertising on Facebook following you around the web.  Like it or not, that seems to be Facebook’s long-term vision.

Nick O’Neil at AllFacebook.com says new developer tools announced at f8 will provide “website owners with deeper insight into the users visiting their site…to adjust their product based on various user segmentations.”  “Like” data will be a treasure trove of information for customer segmentations based on demographic, behavioral and lifestyle attributes.  Facebook may be fun, but make no mistake: its users are participating in the most comprehensive consumer research study in the history of marketing.

According to CNET’s Caroline McCarthy, “more than ever, F8 is going to be Facebook’s pitch to developers, advertisers, and the world: You are destined to be part of our Web, and our universe.” That vision still requires Facebook’s users continuing to view the platform as the preferred tool for managing their social networks.  Facebook may extend its functionality outside of its walls, but it will never let users take that network data with them.  In a sense, Facebook could become less of a destination, and more of base camp.  And travelers that embark on voyages from that base camp have to leave all of their most valuable gear behind.

And therein lies the rub.  Facebook’s biggest asset is your social network graph’s data.  But what will happen if consumers start demanding the portability, ownership and control of their social network data?  As Mashable’s Pete Cashmore puts it, “The question that will decide Facebook’s fate: Can it keep the social graph locked up forever?”

As a child of Web 2.0, Facebook’s treatment of your social network data stands in sharp contrast to the sharability and openness of Web 2.0’s utopian ideals.  Kudos to Facebook for seeing the folly in unsustainable Web 2.0 business models while still balancing the openness of its API to developers in order to drive innovation.  But even if Facebook manages to move from destination to distributed platform, it remains to be seen whether or not consumers will ultimately friend its closed approach to their social network data for the long haul.


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