Facebook wants Open Graph language to ‘feel natural,’ represent actual behavior

Facebook’s Chris Maliwat advised marketers and developers to build Open Graph apps that help people share “authentic” stories using “natural language.”

Speaking at the Extole Social Advocacy Summit last week, Maliwat, who leads strategic partner development among the commerce vertical, explained that with Open Graph, marketers and developers can take the actions that people do on and offline and make them “structured and sponsorable.”

This is core to the growth of the Facebook platform. Ultimately, Facebook wants every person, place and thing to be represented on its graph, and it wants those objects to be connected the same way they are in the physical world. People listen to songs, read articles, want products, play games, buy gifts.

“If it rings true and it’s authentic, that’s when you see the most engagement,” Maliwat said. Campaigns that try to be overly branded or clever often don’t do as well because they try to get users to take unnatural actions or make statements they wouldn’t otherwise make. “We want Open Graph actions and objects to feel like natural language.”

Maliwat suggested that the company would continue to expand the Open Graph infrastructure to better reflect offline behavior and connections. At f8 last year, Facebook made it possible for developers to add their own custom verbs to the Open Graph. At the same time, it began offering “built-in” actions: read, watch, listen. What this means is all apps where users watch videos use the built-in watch action, and activity from those apps has semantic meaning and can be aggregated. Follow and Like are other built-in actions. More so than custom actions, built-in actions help Facebook understand the relationship between objects so that it can properly organize them in News Feed, Timeline aggregations and eventually search.

“In the future, what you’ll see us doing more is translating natural language into the graph, into graph actions,” Maliwat said. “You’ll see more built-in actions that feel natural.”

The more Facebook can encourage developers to build apps that represent actions people take off-Facebook, the more valuable the social graph will be. Remember, CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently suggested that Facebook search would be about answering users’ questions, not just returning results for a string of keywords.

Maliwat didn’t offer any examples of future built-in actions, but Facebook has shown interest in “want” recently. We found the social network testing a Want button plugin for third-party websites earlier this year, and just this month, the company began testing a feature for fans to click “want” on products they see in “collections” posts. “Own” and “buy” might be other important built-in verbs for Facebook to have, but for now developers can create their own custom versions of these actions.

Having built-in actions is also important for reducing fragmentation. For instance, the company recently began requiring all custom actions that express affinity to be associated with the built-in Like verb. This way Facebook’s system knows that “love,” “favorite,” “smileyface,” “yum” and others are all variants of “like.” Something similar might be needed for travel apps, which have different ways for users to express that they’ve been to different places. You can “travel” to a location, “check in” there, “pin” a place on your travel map or “update” your passport. If Facebook created a built-in “visit,” “travel” or “go” action, these custom verbs could all be associated with the built-in action and have the same semantic meaning in Facebook’s graph.

Another reason for Facebook to continue to add built-in actions is to establish standards and best practices. For example, in May, Facebook set rules about how long an app has to wait before publishing watch and read actions. This was meant to reign in social news and video apps that some users began to see as spammy and manipulative. Similarly, Facebook removed the option for apps to automatically publish custom actions that represent a user’s consumption activity, such as browsing a catalogue or looking up a recipe. Auto-sharing is still allowed for built-in actions, read, watch and listen. Custom verbs can be created, but users have to manually click a button or take an explicit action before their activity can be posted back to Facebook.

Marketers and developers who have created their own actions or are thinking about building new Open Graph apps should consider what type of stories they’re asking users to share and how that fits into or conflicts with Facebook’s vision for the platform.

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