Why We Need an Open “Like” Standard

Mark Zuckerberg in his keynote at Facebook’s f8 conference this week did his best to convince attendees that the launch of “social plugins” powering a billion or more “Like” buttons across the web was the best thing that could ever happen to the Internet. Not everyone was sold on the idea, however. To some, it sounded like a company that wanted to get its proprietary hooks into every corner of the web and suck users’ activity data back to the mothership. That’s fine for Facebook, of course, but not so fine for anyone else who’s interested in that information, and doesn’t want to have to go to Zuckerberg on bended knee and ask for it.
Chris Dixon, co-founder of Hunch, is one of those people. So while Zuckerberg was announcing Facebook’s ambitious plans, Dixon and some like-minded programmers were cooking up their own launch: an open-source standard for recommendations called Open Like. The idea behind the project, which is still in its embryonic stages, is that websites and services would be able to federate recommendations or “likes” by adopting a uniform standard for the data. In the same way that OAuth (which Facebook is now supporting) is an open standard for sharing user information, and OpenID is an open standard for logging into websites and services, Open Like would allow anyone who adopts the standard to make use of recommendation data.
“I feel like everyone is falling asleep while Facebook and Twitter are taking over,” Dixon said in a phone interview. “I love Facebook and Twitter — I think I’m even an investor in Twitter through some venture funds I’m a shareholder in — but I just think it’s a bad thing for the web. What if HTTP or SMTP were owned by one company?” What Facebook is trying to do with its open graph protocol might be good for Facebook, the Hunch co-founder says, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for anyone else. “They’re acting in their economic interests — there’s nothing evil about it,” he says. “But people who think that it’s some kind of move towards being open are just naive.”

It’s worth pointing out that Facebook’s attempt to aggregate and understand the “semantic web” is a direct threat to Dixon’s Hunch, which is also trying to extract meaning from the behavior of users online, whether through Twitter or some other social network. And Dixon says he doesn’t want to be in charge of the Open Like venture in part because there’s a perception of conflict given his interest in Hunch (which he co-founded with Flickr creator Caterina Fake). But that doesn’t mean having an open standard for recommendations and related behavior isn’t a good thing, because it undoubtedly is, in the same way that having OAuth and OpenID are good for the web as a whole.
Even calling what Facebook has launched an “open graph protocol” is misleading, according to Dixon. “It doesn’t open anything, except for Facebook. It’s basically a system for tagging pages so that Facebook can understand them.” Just as Google (s goog) has an open operating system in Android but keeps a lock on its search and ad algorithms, he says, Facebook is only being partly open. “If it’s open, then why can’t I download the whole social graph? I can get it piecemeal, but not the whole thing. These companies make noises about being open, but they aren’t where it counts.” Wikipedia, he notes, lets users download the software that powers it, along with all the content, and create their own version of Wikipedia if they want.
It isn’t so much that he is anti-Facebook, Dixon says, as he is pro-open. Why? Because that’s what spurs innovation. Some might argue that the “Like” system Facebook is implementing isn’t really that important — and certainly not as important as HTTP — but in the social web, knowing all about someone’s interests and behavior around those interests is an incredibly powerful set of data. “I don’t think their ultimate goal is nefarious,” says Dixon. “I just think it hurts innovation to have this kind of thing controlled by any one company.”
The Hunch co-founder says he is currently looking for an “open advocate” — possibly even Google — to take over the Open Like initiative. Would Google be interested? The idea certainly seems to have caught the interest of Chris Messina, an open standards advocate who is now working for the search company. Messina mentioned the Open Like effort approvingly in a post about Facebook’s social graph, in which he says:

When all likes lead to Facebook, and liking requires a Facebook account, and Facebook gets to hoard all of the metadata and likes around the interactions between people and content, it depletes the ecosystem of potential and chaos — those attributes which make the technology industry so interesting and competitive.

Messina added that he’s “looking forward to what efforts like OpenLike might do to tip back the scales, and bring the potential and value of such simple and meaningful interactions to other social identity providers across the web.” Indeed, that’s something we should all have an interest in.
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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Stuck in Customs