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Don't get confused: Facebook's open stream approach isn't like Twitter's

April 27, 2009 | 12:11 pm

Facebook-openFacebook announced the launch today of its Open Stream API, a new set of tools that will allow application developers to access users' "streams" -- the never-ending set of updates, photos and shared links that constitute what Facebook calls "the core" of its product.

"We've spent a bunch of time thinking about how to open up the Facebook experience to outside developers for innovation," said Dave Morin, a platform designer at Facebook, who said that there were more than 660,000 developers building applications for the social network. "But this is the first time we've opened up the core user experience for consumption outside of the Facebook.com website."

Developers of new open applications will be able to siphon stream data from the site and use it to fuel Facebook-based applications elsewhere on the Web. That creates the potential to harness a great deal of valuable user-generated data, which could be used to track consumer trends among the site's more than 200 million global users.

Users will maintain control of their data privacy, Morin noted, and applications will be able to access streams only with individual users' permission -- largely the way Facebook's current on-site application system works. The data harvested by new applications will be subject to the same privacy strictures as any other data on Facebook: Even if it's on other websites, it will still be visible only by your friends, not the public at large.

Still, once developers are granted permission, they'll have broad access ...

to what appears in a user's stream. A detailed explanation of the new API tools tells developers that "reading the stream gives you all the content of a user's stream, including posts from the user and the user's friends, regardless of privacy settings of the posts."

A potentially confusing sentence in the same paragraph reads, "You can then display the stream's contents in your application or on your site."

People used to the way Twitter works might have to think for an extra minute about why it's OK that Facebook is allowing third parties to take their data and move them to other sites. The critical qualifier, which Facebook buries in the middle of its announcement, is that developers "can access the stream on behalf of a user and then filter, remix and display the stream back to that user however you choose." (Bold added for emphasis.)

Translation: The new applications will be able to publish data across the Web -- but the audience for that remixed data will be the original Facebook user, not the public. 

That distinction is important because Facebook's move to allow off-site developers to mine user information has been seen as an attempt to replicate the way Twitter's messaging system developed. Twitter, an outward-facing platform in which all user information is public by default, has nourished a wide ecosystem of third-party applications that take advantage of the high volume of public data Twitter users generate. Twitter applications can track a variety of trends embedded in the collective data, including things such as the most popular articles and the most frequently tweeted words.

But while open Facebook applications may be able to capture users' data to create similar types of analysis and trend tracking, the data itself will remain private. 

In that way, Facebook's new system is both open and closed. 

"We’re all about giving the user the control to share information with the people that they want to," Morin assured.

-- David Sarno [follow]

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