What’s Facebook up to with all this “like” stuff? I’ll begin by assuming that you are as confused as I was about this idea. Basically, Facebook is attempting to get every website to implement a Facebook “Like” button. When you click a Like button, your Facebook profile will be updated to include your new Like. If this catches on, then the entire internet can be ranked, in a sense, by Facebook users. This information about Likes is relevant in two ways. First, the data can be used on the micro level to target advertisements to you on Facebook, the stickiest and most popular website on the internet. Second, the data can be used on the macro level to perform a popularity ranking of the internet.
Crowdsourcing is the outsourcing of tasks to a large community. An example of crowdsourcing is a cellphone app that reports gasoline prices and asks users of the app to report back prices they observe. Facebook is attempting to crowdsource the internet. Instead of crawling the internet with sophisticated spiders that follow every link, they shift the task to the website owners who must install a “Like” button and to the Facebook populance who must click the buttons to make the system work.
This fundamentally differs from Google’s approach to indexing the web in a few ways. Google spiders the web to detect new content. This approach is changing somewhat through advancements like PubSubHubBub (say that ten times fast) which allow content providers to push their updates to Google and burn real-time RSS feeds. Google also crowdsources the internet in a way but it does so seamlessly and, more importantly, privately. When you search for pages on Google and click links, Google learns both what you like (without clicking a button) and also uses this information to target advertisements and even rank pages in your own search results. In the aggregate, this information (your clicks) is used to rank pages.
So, what’s the difference? Facebook has slowly chipped away at users’ privacy. For example, Facebook updates are now public by default. Perhaps Twitter paved the way for that change but it was not a welcomed change by many. Now, Facebook users are being asked to essentially display their internet preferences and browsing history to their “friends” and the general public. The privacy implications of this scheme are profound. Imagine if Google’s Chrome browser or Google.com asked users to opt-in and make their browsing history public (even on a per-click basis). People would be, rightfully so, outraged. Facebook is being raked over the coals by privacy groups and many people who actually understand what is being proposed. However, the cuteness of “Like” concept and the appeal of the Facebook brand have blinded some people from questioning the entire concept. Frankly, I don’t plan on clicking Like buttons and I believe that people should really think critically about the system that is being implemented.
Somewhat uncomfortably, this website has a Facebook button in the upper right. This enables those who click to see posts in their Facebook stream. This button was created long before we were asked to rank the entire internet. It was intended to serve an entirely different purpose and it wouldn’t bother me one bit if you choose to unlike Tech Bottle but follow the posts another way (by e-mail, Buzz, Twitter, RSS readers, etc.). While on the topic of unliking, I have read that unliking something might pluck the logo off of your profile but there will be other ways to determine a user’s past likes. So, if you Liked Coke last week but want a job at Pepsi this week, you might have sunk yourself.
P.S. Another major issue with the Facebook scheme involves sharing your personal information with other Facebook partners across the web. You probably saw a small box about this at the top of your Facebook stream. This is another somewhat confusing change to Facebook and I have opted out of it. I don’t think it is clear what data will be shared and exactly how it will be used. Perhaps I will become more comfortable with a personalized internet and opt-in at some point but for now, I prefer the internet the way it is.
UPDATE: Matt Cutts, a high profile Google employee, just suspended his Facebook account. http://searchengineland.com/matt-cutts-deactivates-facebook-account-40543
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