Facebook Provides Users With App Dashboard Privacy Controls

One of the more interesting features within the new Facebook dashboards is the ability to see which applications and games the people in your friend list have been using. Although this is a great way to discover new apps, there were privacy concerns around having so much information visible to friends automatically.

Facebook took the first step to address this last week with the introduction of a privacy control at the developer level. Now, application developers can decide whether their app or game will appear in a user’s friends dashboards or not. This is useful for application types that a developer thinks a user might avoid if their friends knew they were using it. However, it doesn’t provide privacy options to the users themselves.

Since last week, Facebook has added a new privacy control on the user application privacy settings page (accessed from the new “Account” dropdown at the top right of the page and clicking on “Applications and Websites”) that lets the user do just that. There, you can see a new option for controlling “Activity on applications and games dashboards”, shown below:

The control gives users a number of options as to who will be able to see their application activity. The choices are similar to those that control status update and other wall visibility: “Everyone”, “Friends and networks”, “Friends of friends” or “Only friends”. Obviously, Facebook prefers that everyone shares information at least with their friend network.

Click on the “Customize” option, though, and a dialogue box appears with the ability to restrict the information to certain friends (or to hide it from specified friends), networks, or for maximum privacy: “Only me”. This effectively gives the user the ability to hide all of their application activity from their friends.

Although it doesn’t provide the ability to hide only particular applications, this does provide a way for those users who are most sensitive about the apps and games they interact with to hide their activity. However, we doubt a large number of users will end up setting this option.

Facebook Updates the Upcoming Apps Dashboards to Address Privacy Concerns

Last week, we wrote about privacy concerns regarding the upcoming application and games dashboards which are planned for launch to all users sometime this month. The issue was the automatic display of application activity to all of a user’s friends; the dashboard would list the most three recently used applications, and how recently the interaction happened. Although for the most part users would likely have no issue with this, there were two privacy concerns that we highlighted:

  • The first was that some applications were of a type that a user may not want all of their friends knowing that they’re using. Dating apps were an obvious example.
  • The second was that as everything was visible, game activity would be displayed, making it fairly easy for employers to keep tabs on what employees are doing with their lunch breaks (or possibly not just their lunchbreaks), for example.

Facebook appears to have addressed the first issue with a developer update announcement yesterday which is intended “to ensure that the dashboards meet user and developer expectations for a trustworthy experience.” Applications will now be able to hide user activity from these dashboards with a new developer setting:

If you think your application might be of a nature that your users wouldn’t want to share with friends (your application lets users discuss health issues, for example), we encourage you to enable the Hide User Activity option on the Advanced tab of your application settings in the Developer application… While your application will still be featured in the user’s personal dashboard, it will not be visible to that user’s friends. By giving your users greater protection of their privacy, you can ensure that they will feel more comfortable continuing to use the applications they would like to keep personal.

This relies on developers making the choice as to whether their application is one that users will or won’t be happy having their friends see them using. Developers with “private” applications, such as dating, can select this option and their app won’t appear in the dashboards.

Facebook is also working on a way for users to control the dashboard content themselves, which will likely address the second of the privacy concerns. Although there’s no indication of how this might look or an exact date for when it will be ready, Facebook says, “We’re also working on giving users the ability to control how their application activity is featured in the dashboards, and it will go live shortly after the dashboards launch to users.”

As to be expected with a system as complex as the Facebook Platform, there are inevitably issues that arise as new features are introduced. In this case it’s good to see Facebook addressing these concerns as it continues to toe the line between openness and user privacy.

Some Developers Have Privacy Concern with Facebook App Dashboards

The preview versions of Facebook’s new application dashboard and games dashboard have been live for a few days, but in anticipation of a wider rollout to users, some developers are expressing privacy concerns.

The dashboards are being introduced to aid application discovery, with the motivation being that users will interact with new applications and games by seeing what their friends are using. This should help to promote applications with high user engagement. Currently the dashboards are tucked away inside the Applications menu, but they’re expected to move to a more prominent position on the left side of the home page over the coming weeks.

In the main, developers have welcomed the dashboards, which may go some way to halt the expected decline in traffic that will arise due to some of the other upcoming changes. However, a potential privacy issue has been raised on the Facebook developer’s forum.

At its core, the problem is the unrestricted visibility of application usage of every user to all of their friends. The dashboards allow a user to see all of their friends’ three most recently used applications.  Looking through the list of my friends’ recent applications, I can see at least a couple of users of the “Zoosk” dating application, a handful of friends checking out the “Be Naughty!” app, and various horoscope and gifting applications.

Although some people may not have an issue with this information being visible to friends, there will be many that won’t like it. In fact, some are arguing that the stalking opportunities the dashboards offer are much more interesting than the chance of discovering new applications. The games dashboard is also useful for showing which friends have been playing games when perhaps they shouldn’t have been, so we may see a round of boss de-friending following their full launch if more privacy controls aren’t added.

There’s been no response from Facebook yet in the developer’s forum as to whether they regard any of this as a potential problem. Given the strong reaction of some users to recent privacy setting changes, we expect to see similar protests around this. If Facebook doesn’t make any changes, we could see changes in how users use some types of applications as a result.

Q&A with UK-based The iPlatform’s Joshua March on Helping Brands Use Facebook

Facebook recently announced a list of 14 preferred developer consultants – companies that the company recommends for building Facebook applications, pages or other forms of expert insight. We recently spoke to Joshua March of The iPlatform. His company is the only non-US one on the consultants list, and in the article below, he explains how he got on, what the challenges and opportunities are for brands (and the companies that work with them) in Europe, and other aspects of developing on Facebook.

Inside Facebook: What kind clients do you work with?

Joshua March: We’re split between working for agencies that have big brand clients (most of which we can’t name) and working directly with brands on variety of projects. We’ve worked with brands like Nestle and McDonalds, and with agencies like Mindshare and Razorfish. With the agency model we may provide full service, filling in the gaps where the agency has little in-house expertise, or often there will be in-house designers that we’re working with and we provide the technical and consultancy support. In terms of direct clients we’ve worked with ITV, Gumtree, Comic Relief, The Conservative Party and Ministry of Sound.

IFB: What kind of projects have you been working on?

JM: About half of our work comes from applications, mostly in the form of bespoke Flash games, but the other half is based around the platform we’ve developed that lets brands run competitions within their pages. It handles moderation, user tracking and the usual admin tasks and complies with Facebook’s requirement that competitions be run from an application. Competitions can be one-off or run daily. We provide this as a white label product and then skin it for the client. It’s not wholly self-serve but it is self-managing once it’s set up.

IFB: How did you find yourselves on Facebook’s preferred developer list?

JM: A number of brands were contacting Facebook about running competitions on the site, and they were then passed on to us because Facebook knew about our competition platform. We’ve also benefitted from the lack of a Facebook Platform team in Europe: media agencies deal with Facebook directly but there’s only really an ad sales team here, yet they’re still asked technical questions. So they’re passed onto our iPlatform team for technical advice and consultancy, especially with San Francisco being 8 hours away. Facebook have been one of our main sources of leads and that’s helped to build trust.

IFB: How do you find the level of social media expertise in London?

JM: It’s extraordinarily difficult to find people who know the social media space in London, but we’ve found we can educate them as long as they’re good in other areas. We’re around ten people at the moment, including consultants for individual projects, and looking to up the full-time number.

IFB: What sort of activity are you seeing from clients on the Facebook platform?

JM: The past six months have seen a lot more interest from brands in Facebook and social media. New media agencies are realising that they can’t build Facebook applications and are bringing in expertise such as ours. We have to educate them as the sign-off processes that brands like to see don’t transition well to Facebook. Facebook development needs more flexibility. Applications for fan pages have a lot of things to sign off on: reviews, comments etc. We almost had a project pulled when the client realised that they couldn’t prevent users from writing reviews about their application.

IFB: Are you seeing much interest in Connect?

JM: Fan pages and applications inside fan pages seem to be where the activity is at the moment. Part of this is that brands often take a year or two to catch up with the newest trends, so we may see more activity with Connect soon. Currently Connect is being seen as experimental budget where fan pages are more part of their main marketing activity. One interesting points is that Connect is probably better suited to the brand project process as you can have much more control over the user experience. You don’t have the same problems of working within the Facebook platform. Also, agencies understand Connect better and can plan strategies better as they’re more similar to their traditional projects than applications or fan pages are.

IFB: What’s big for the iPlatform this coming year?

JM: We’re making time to work on more projects like the competition platform, such as page management tools. We manage the fan pages for most of the top 100 footballers in England and have tools for things like scheduled content publication. We think there’ll be continued growth in pages, especially with the potential of the upcoming Open Graph API, although there are few details of this yet.

In terms of Facebook I think the Open Graph API – being able to turn any website into a fan page experience – will be very interesting, and we’ll see how that works with Connect. Hopefully as agencies learn more about Facebook and Connect we’ll also see social media strategies thought out with more depth.

Will Facebook Users Share Their Email Address with App Developers?

As part of Facebook’s Platform roadmap rollout, applications will no longer be able to send notifications to users – instead, Facebook is creating an new API through which users can explicitly deliver their email addresses to developers, and also creating a new counters for developers to show on app bookmarks. Because many developers have used notifications to send both user-to-user and app-to-user updates, this is obviously going to mean big changes for some applications.

How will users respond to applications requesting their email address? This is one of developers’ biggest questions about the changes to Facebook’s viral channels. Granting access to the Facebook notifications stream is one thing, but granting access to the email inbox is another. If early reactions we’re seeing in one larger application are anything to go by, the answer is “not very well”.

Honesty BoxThe application Honesty Box has been around since the first days of the platform. It has maintained consistently high usage after more than two years on the Facebook Platform. At the core of the application is the anonymous messaging system which, simply put, sends a user a notification if another user writes a message in their honesty box.

The planned removal of user-to-user notifications obviously causes some problems with this workflow, especially for those who may retain the app for a long time but only use it infrequently (as is be the case with any utility application). The application counters will partially help, with only a few bookmark spots available, some of these long-term utility applications may not make it into everybody’s lists.

In order to try to pre-empt losing contact with their users, the developers of Honesty Box published the following stream message to fans:

… make sure to bookmark the app and give us your email because notifications as you know them are going away and it will be hard for us to let you know you have new messages.

The selection of user comments below may not be surprising to those who are skeptical about how ready users will be to hand over their e-mail address:

“then i guess i won’t be notified… no way i need more spam in my email”
“its just a scam to get peoples info”
“Na im not giving my email out neither”
“I’ve bookmarked it but not giving u email”
“why would you get rid if the notifacations and make it thru e mail that is just stupide”
“haha im not giving my email out, who do you think we are? USER POWER!!”
“on the safe side, i think I’ll choose keeping my comp virus/spam free..thanks anyway~”
“im not giving my email out ya right! what app ask for your email.”
“Ya’all might wanna be careful what info you give out on here, or what links you click on…I have heard there are viruses and malware lurking around.”

If these responses are anything to go by (and bear in mind that these are users who have actively become fans of the application) then it seems like many applications are going to have trouble getting users to share their email addresses. Much like any other web app developer, Facebook app developers are going to have to really engage and earn the trust of their users in order to get a significant number of user emails.

Is Facebook Creating a New Type of News Feed Story for Apps to Reengage Users?

facebook platform developersFollowing Facebook’s recent Platform roadmap announcements, there has been a lot of developer uncertainty about the best ways for applications to continue to communicate with their users. The many changes are going to affect all applications, but some smaller developers without marketing budgets are particularly worried about retention with users who don’t bookmark their apps.

Currently, applications can send something called an “application-to-user notification” to dormant users. When these notifications are removed (possibly as soon as December), these dormant or occasional-use users may be lost to an application forever. (A developer thread devoted entirely to the loss of application-to-user notifications can be found here.)

However there are some hints in Facebook’s announcements that may offer hope.

Application-to-user messages in the feed?

A phrase buried in the “Prominent new Dashboards” section of Facebook’s recent roadmap announcements names “an additional communication channel, called ‘News’ , where you can personalize text updates for users.” Does this offer the prospect of application-to-user stream stories? Early screenshots of the new design (below) may give another clue.

App-to-user stream stories?

Notice how the “Games” tab is separated into two sections: “Your recent games” and “Your friends are playing”. The second (lower) section appears to be just the regular stream filtered by games applications, albeit grouped by application, but the top half is something new.

The wording of the examples shown in “Your recent games” is different than the other stories: they’re not activity stories published on behalf of other users, but rather they’re messages talking to the user directly. For example, “Your overall record is 50-33! Your rank is Wordsmith. You’re in 12th place, just behind Jonah!”

This is the kind of information that developers have been placing in application-to-user notifications to date, so will there be a new stream taking on this role? The idea generally conforms with Facebook’s aim of simplifying communication channels to the stream and the inbox, yet would mean there’s not the hard cut-off of app-to-user communication that developers had feared.

The precedent for application-to-user story communication

The idea of more “private” types of News Feed stories isn’t so much a new feature but rather the rebirth of an old one (reintroducing old concepts is not something Facebook has shown it’s averse to doing).

Not so long ago (prior to the June 2008 redesign) Facebook had a similar system in place where developers could publish two types of stories. The first type was for actions of the user that would be published to their profile page. These would also appear in their friends’ news feeds (subject to the feed algorithm). Applications sent these by calling the “publishActionOfUser” API method and they have effectively morphed into the stream stories of today.

The second type of story were for the user to see only and were called by the “publishStoryToUser” method. These would appear on the old “Home”, page mixed in with actions of friends, but were eradicated entirely in 2008.

Giving control to the users

This theory fits with Facebook’s vision of giving the user more control of their experience. If a user wants to play games and complete quizzes all day long, then they can, and applications can publish richly formatted messages in this way to keep them engaged and returning – all without filling up the feeds of their friends. This approach allows whatever apps are the most engaging to the user to have the most presence in this channel.

Additionally, the quality of News Feed stories is generally much higher than notification messages (which are text only and have only had space for little else than “Click here to find out more!” and other strong call to actions to date).

How the stories might be implemented

To speculate even further, these are a few ideas about how Facebook may go about balancing the needs of users and developers in a new implementation (and to reiterate, we have no confirmation on this).

  • Applications will likely be limited to publishing only a small number of application-to-user messages per day to prevent spamming. Notifications were limited to one per twenty-four hours, and the previous app-to-user stories were allowed twice. So it seems reasonable to expect a similar level of throttling.
  • Recently used (and authorized) applications would be able to publish to this feed without additional user action or permission, although this may be time-limited (to publishing within days or weeks of the user visiting the application). And it wouldn’t just be limited to bookmarked applications only – any recently used applications will be able to use the channel.
  • The “News” channel will be private to the user and distinct from the stream of stories from friends (the rest of the News Feed), although the formatting may be very similar or even identical.
  • There’s no sign that the stories will appear on the user’s default News Feed. Therefore, users will need to go into the “Applications” or “Games” tab to see them. This will likely make the channel less noticeable than the previous application-to-user stories, and certainly less visible than application-to-user notifications, although arguably those users who do actively check this will be the more engaged ones.
  • Expect to see controls for “Hide all stories from this application” to combat misuse.

We’ll have to wait for more information from Facebook before knowing any of the above for sure, but there appears to be every reason to be hopeful that, although dramatic changes are afoot on the platform, developers aren’t being left as high and dry as they may have feared.

How Are Smaller Developers Reacting to Facebook’s Platform Roadmap?

facebook platform developersIt’s been just over a week since Facebook announced their roadmap for the Platform for the next few months. Some of the larger developers, while not enthusiastic about the changes, have expressed hope that they will bring about better engagement in the long run. Many have been heads-down working towards the changes, and we’re starting to see some of the results of that experimentation in their applications (such as a growth in the use of “fan boxes”, as well as new feed story experiments from Zynga). But how are the smaller developers reacting to the changes?

One of the best places to measure opinion is one of the more active threads on the Facebook Developer Forum, whose title gives away some developers’ feelings right from the start: “Would Facebook Really Kill All Viral Channels for Developers?” Interestingly, the concerns mainly cover the soon to be implemented roadmap announcements, rather than the arguably more disruptive recent re-introduction of the algorithmic News Feed, which already appears to be affecting some applications’ traffic.

Removing notifications

The loss of both user-to-user notifications and application-to-user notifications are seen as the biggest changes. User-to-user notifications are often used as a way to spread an application virally. These messages are often phrased along the lines of “X did Y to you using the Z application,” and are triggered when users somehow interact with friends within an application. These notifications reinforce the network effects of applications with a large user base, although they can also be used (or sometimes misused) to help spread an application to new users.

There is some confusion as to why notifications are being removed. A longstanding forum member writes, “The biggest blow for apps will be the removal of notifications. Facebook claims they want to reduce spam – but almost all complaints about spam have to do with the news feed, the notifications are unintrusive and they fade over time.” As another says: “It’s so easy to block notifications from an application.”

Keeping users informed

Application Counters

User-to-user notifications will be somewhat replaced by the announced “Counter” system (shown on the right), although as-yet there is no final design for this. Counters will show a user that they have activities to perform within an application, but only for users who have bookmarked an application. The concerns around the Counter mainly center on dormant users and how to get enough users to bookmark the app in the first place.

Keeping dormant users engaged

The other type of notifications, application-to-user, has proven useful in reengaging users of applications that they have not visited lately. Once an application has been authorized by a user, it has the right to send that user one of these notifications per day. It can be used for anything from simple, “Hey, the app’s still here, come and do something,” messages to more intelligent CRM-style promotions aimed at re-engaging dormant users.

However, the common belief is that “most people don’t even know how to bookmark” apps, and so they won’t remember to return to applications they would otherwise enjoy. Whether Facebook’s release of a set of in-app bookmarking tools and a more prominent placement of application bookmarks improves this situation is yet to be seen. It’s regarded as unlikely that these measures will be able to directly replace the traffic that can be kept alive by application-to-user notifications.

Collecting user emails

Facebook’s other announcement that will partially replace application-to-user notifications is the creation of a new API that will allow developers to ask for user email addresses directly. Here the forum members seem to be largely in agreement: most have no wish to manage email communication with their users, and also have little expectation of users either providing their addresses in the first place or paying attention to messages from applications when they receive them. The biggest concern is that, as with many of the viral channels, it will only take a few large-scale cases of abuse to turn users off of the medium altogether: “As soon as some devs start throwing torrents of spam, people will tell each other not to give any email to any app.”

It’s interesting to note that although having a user’s email is often a highly prized piece of information in Internet marketing, as it can be the best way to engage with users over the longer term, small developers in general seem to have less of a desire to have to maintain this communication channel. Facebook itself is possibly expecting that shutting down the applications themselves will be a sufficient penalty if any legal issues arise.

Looking ahead

Many application developers see the need for changes on the platform, even if it’s at the expense of viral growth. There’s also recognition of the fact that the high usage of Facebook’s existing channels by applications has made some of these changes necessary. The main sticking point, however, is whether the new email communication route being proposed is an effective answer. As another long-term forum member notes: “If developers played by the rules already, then we wouldn’t need to have these constant changes in order to combat spammy apps. I certainly don’t expect them to behave by the rules in a channel which is much harder to monitor and police.”

Although it’s rare to see the bigger name developers on the forum, many developers there have applications with hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of monthly active users. Their livelihoods are dependent on continued app success. It remains to be seen how Facebook’s roadmap will finally manifest itself in the user interface over the next few months of Platform changes and, more importantly, in terms of application usage patterns, and these are uncertain times for the smaller, low-budget development teams.

Facebook Tracking Page Views for Game Applications?

facebook platform developersDevelopers have been noticing some slightly unusual calls to Facebook’s servers within game applications recently that show signs of Facebook tracking page views to games as distinct from other applications.

A visit to a canvas page of seemingly any application within the “Games” category results in a call to the URL “http://apps.facebook.com/ajax/games/play_update.php”. This doesn’t appear to do much except to pass some simple data (mostly to identify the host application) and return a nominal confirmation message, and it only occurs once per page view. Unless there are site problems the call is invisible to most users without looking through the details of HTTP calls from the browser.

Others have noticed it too. A Google search brings up a number of user questions on game application forums both on and off Facebook, mostly from users reporting the error message as the result of a failed call, and worrying that it’s affecting their gaming experience. So what is the call doing? We’ve asked Facebook for clarification, and are still awaiting their response.

One assumption is that Facebook is tracking page views on game application canvas pages as a distinct metric, possible as part of their monitoring of overall platform trends. Against a backdrop of increasing game development on the platform, especially virtual-goods based game development, this may indicate Facebook is keeping an eye on how much the site is turning into a games platform rather than the more general “social utility” for some users.

Users shouldn’t be alarmed at the call in any case – it doesn’t appear to be passing any detailed information and is only data that the site would be collecting from routine usage anyway. Implementing it as a separate call is most likely to avoid having to crunch the logfiles of hundreds of servers just to obtain some fairly basic traffic stats. However, if nothing else, it does seem to show that Facebook is paying attention to the rise of social games within the Platform, and is keeping an eye on how games are affecting the application ecosystem and overall Facebook traffic and engagement.

Update: A Facebook spokesperson has responded with the following:

We are always testing ways to provide developers with the tools they need to optimize their users’ experience. The ajax call is meant to be a way to track engagement with apps by looking at actions like game plays. We’ll share more details as they become available.

Facebook Developer Garage London Happening this Thursday

Facebook Developer Garage, LondonThe London Facebook Developer Garage is taking place this Thursday 24th September at the usual location of Sun Microsystems, 45 King William Street, London. The topic this month is “What NOT to do in social media!”, taking a look at some of the high profile failures in the space as well as some insider advice on how to avoid the pitfalls and boost an application’s chances of success. Clara Shih, author of The Facebook Era, is the headline speaker and is going to be covering Audience Engagement on Facebook.

There’s the usual networking sessions and beer and pizza provided by Sun. In addition, speakers will include:

  • Iskandar Najmuddin from Nudge discussing the latest technical updates and changes to platform
  • Mat Clayton from Wakari/MixCloud/Web Ticketing on how *not* to develop a Facebook app based on his experience developing some of the biggest facebook app marketing campaigns
  • A look at the five biggest ‘epic fails’ in social media over the past few years from Hermione Way, presenter of Techfluff.tv

The doors open at 6pm and talks start at 7pm. Standard tickets are £7.50 or £4.50 for students. You can find out more about the event on the Facebook event page and tickets are available on Eventbrite as well as on the door.

A Look At Recent Convergence Between Facebook and Twitter

There have been a lot of comparisons between Facebook and Twitter over the past few months, ever since Twitter gained strong media coverage after a few months of solid growth. Having previously tried to buy Twitter, the suspicion has been that Facebook is adopting many of the features of the microblogging service. Let’s take a look at some of Facebook’s recent developments to see how that theory stands up.

The Stream

Facebook’s replacement of “the news feed” with “the stream” back in March brought inevitable comparisons with Twitter. The layout bears more than a passing resemblance, and although there are more rich and varied content types in Facebook (like links, application stories, and videos as well as status updates) the similarity between the two is undeniable.

Facebook’s stream:
Facebook's stream
Twitter’s feed:
A Twitter feed

Opening up the stream

A criticism levelled at Facebook had always been that it was a closed environment. There were concerns that it was trying to horde user data and much of the success of Twitter was attributed to the openness of the API – a feature that means that you can use Twitter without ever visiting the site after initial sign-up.

Recently Facebook opened up the stream API – a way for third party sites and applications to access a user’s activity and publish to the stream in desktop applications or external websites. There are more privacy concerns on Facebook than Twitter – Twitter knows very little about each user, so there’s less data at risk – but by opening up the activity stream Facebook has adopted another of the features that has been identified as a part of Twitter’s success.

“What’s on your mind?”

First the “is” was dropped from Facebook status updates, and then the “What are you doing now?” question was replaced with the much more open “What’s on your mind?” The prompt is now not just asking you to update friends on your activity but to share whatever you might be thinking about, reading or watching. It’s taken some time but people are starting to get used to typing something that isn’t limited to the progressive tense. Interestingly, Twitter prompts “What are you doing?” but has always been used in a less literal way that has been described as a thought stream.

Facebook’s status prompt:
Facebook's status prompt

Twitter’s status prompt:
Twitter status prompt

Usernames

Since this past weekend, Facebook users are now able to use friendly aliases for their profiles. Much like twitter.com/yourname, users are now able to have facebook.com/yourname too. This will make it much easier to pass names around – all you need is the username and can guess the rest – and opens up the possibility of adding links to your Facebook profile onto business cards. Will it follow this move with being able to direct comments to users with an addressable @ message, as Twitter does? It certainly seems possible as a way for users to draw each other into conversations.

Asymmetrical relationships

Often pointed out as the differentiator between Facebook and Twitter, asymmetrical relationships are best explained by using Twitter’s “Follow” paradigm. Put simply: I can follow you, but if you don’t follow me, then our relationship is asymmetrical. This is in contrast to Facebook, where befriending somebody is a mutual act – both parties have to agree to be friends. In Twitter most users allow anybody to follow them, but they may or may not reciprocate.

So how are the two sites similar? Facebook Pages (or public profiles) are clearly asymmetrical: “Become a fan” is basically the same as Twitter’s “Follow.” Facebook took another step towards asymmetry by giving users the ability to hide individual friends in their stream. This allows you to befriend somebody yet never see any of their activity. The workings might be very different between Twitter and Facebook, but the end result has some similarities.

Look under the hood a bit more and there are more telltale signs that asymmetrical relationships are going to become more prevalent on Facebook. Along with the release of the new homepage and the stream a new set of tables were exposed to developers, including one called “Connection“. This defines the links between people and people (friends) and between people and pages (fans). They’re treated interchangeably for the purposes of the data store. Even more interestingly the table contains a very Twitter-like column named “is_following”.

There are no signs that Facebook will go towards a fully asymmetrical model – and I don’t believe it’s appropriate for it to do so (although some do) – but the potential to implement asymmetrical relationships is there and may be utilized more as the site provides more features catering to commercial clients.

Is Facebook really becoming like Twitter?

Despite all of these Twitter-esque changes to Facebook, the two sites are still very different and serve very different purposes. Like any business that watches trends in its space, it’s more plausible to believe that Facebook is taking inspiration from Twitter (and others) to refine their offering than to say that they’re worried by the competition. The similarity of some features may point to convergence, but it’s an open question as to why this is happening and whether it’s a trend that will continue.

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