Don’t tell Facebook what you like, tell Twitter

There seems to be a lot to like technically about the announcements at Facebook’s f8 conference, especially for a Semantic Web aficionado. But I won’t have anything to do with it as a user. Along with the usual “your privacy is our toy” subtext, I really don’t like the lack of data portability. “Web 2.0” is starting to look a lot like “AOL 2.0”. Here is a better way to do it.

Taking the new “like” button as a simple example, I’d much rather tell Twitter what I like than Facebook. A simple #like hashtag in a tweet can be used to express positive feelings for what the tweet describes. Here is a quick list of the many advantages of this approach over the newly-introduced Facebook “like” feature.

It’s public

Your tweets are available to all. Your Facebook profile can still consume them, so if you think Facebook does the best job at organizing this information about you and your friends you can still go there to view the results. But other applications and networks can tap into the same data, so you can also benefits from innovation coming out of companies which do not want to be Facebook sharecroppers.

It’s publicly public

By which I mean that there is no pretense of privacy and no nasty surprise when trust is violated. Which is going to happen again and again. Especially when it’s not just a matter of displaying data but also of inferring new information based on the raw data collected. At which point it’s almost impossible to segregate access to the derived information based on the privacy settings of the individual data pieces. On Twitter, it’s all public, we all know it from the start, and as such we’re not fooled into sharing more than we should. See the fallacy of privacy settings.

It works on all things

Rather than only being on a web page, you can use a #like hashtag to describe any URI (dereferenceable or not) or even plain text. Just like RDF allows the value of an attribute to be either a URI or a scalar value (string, number…). For example, you can express that you like a quote or a verse of a poem by including them directly in the tweet. It’s not as identifiable as something that has a URI, but it can still be part of your profile. And smart consumers of this data might still be able to do some processing on it (e.g. recognizing it as a line from a song).

It can still be 1-click

You don’t necessarily have to copy/paste a URL (or text) into twitter. A web site can still do this for you, as long as it has your permission to post on your behalf. With that approach, it looks exactly like the Twitter “like” button to the user. You don’t have to be a Twitter user, just to have a Twitter account. No need for a Twitter client or to visit the Twitter web site if you don’t want to. It’s also OK if you have zero followers, Twitter is just a technical conduit in this approach.

It can evolve

The success of Twitter is also the success of self-organization as illustrated by the emergence of @replies, #hashtags and RT, directly form the users. Rather than having Facebook decide what verbs make sense to allow users to express their thoughts on the Web, let people decide and see what verbs emerge (e.g. to describe what you like, dislike, are curious about, are considering buying, etc). The only thing we need is an understanding that the hashtag qualifies the user’s attitude towards what’s described by the rest of the tweet. Or maybe hashtags should not be reused for this, maybe we need a new breed, “semtags” (semantic tags), with a different syntax, e.g. “^like”. This way you can semtag a hashtag, e.g. “^like #nyc” might replace “I ♥ NY” on twitter feeds (and tee shirts). It can be as simple or as complex as needed, based on what sticks in the real world. Nerds like me will try to qualify it (e.g. “^!like” for “I don’t like”) and might even come up with ontologies (^love subClassOf ^like). These experiences will probably fail and that’s fine. Evolution strives on failures.

It is transparent

Even if you let a site write these messages on your twitter feed, you can see exactly what goes on. There is no secret channel as with Facebook. The fact that it goes on your Twitter timeline acts as a validation, ensuring that only relevant, human-readable messages get added to your profile. Which is the only way in which we can maintain control of our profile information. If sites start to send too much information or opaque information you’ll see it. And so will your followers. This will put pressure on sites to make the posted data sparse and meaningful, because they know that their users won’t want to scare away their followers with social spam. See, for example, how the outcries over foursquare spam seem to have forced a clean-up (or at least so it looks to me, but maybe it’s just because I’ve unfollowed the spammers). Keeping social profiling on a human scale is a bug, not a feature.

It is persisted in many places

Who do you think is more likely to be around in 20 years, Facebook or the Library of Congress? Tweets are archived in many places, including Twitter itself, of course, but also Google, Bing and the Library of Congress. Plus, it’s very easy for you to set up a system to save all your tweets. Even if Twitter disappears, all the data in your profile that was built from your tweets will still be around. And if Google, Bing and the Library of Congress all go dark before Facebook, well that’s fine because the profile data from your tweets can be there too.

In effect, you should think of Facebook as a repository and Twitter as a stream. Don’t publish directly to one repository. Publish to a stream and benefit from all the repositories and other consumers that tap into it. It’s a well-known enterprise integration pattern (message bus), but it’s not just good for enterprise applications.

In fact, more than Twitter itself it’s this pattern that I want to encourage. Twitter is just the most obvious implementation, at this time, of a profile data bus. It already has almost everything we need (though a more fine-grained authorization model, or a delegated authorization model, would make me more likely to allow sites to tweet on my behalf). What matters is the switch from social networks owning data to you owning your data and social networks competing on how much value they can deliver to you based on the data. For example, LinkedIn might be the best for work connections, Facebook for personal connections, Google for brute search/retrieval of information, etc. I don’t want to maintain different profile data and privacy settings for each of them. I have one global privacy settings, which controls what I share with the world. Based on this, I want these sites to compete on the value they provide to me. It may not be what Facebook wants, but if what works best for us.

If you like this proposal, you know what you have to do. Go ahead and tweet:


Or just retweet it.

[UPDATED 2010/5/6: See the next post for some clarifications.]


Filed under Everything, Facebook, Google, Mashup, RDF, Semantic tech, Social networks, Twitter

10 Responses to Don’t tell Facebook what you like, tell Twitter

  1. Great post and I agree with your point in principle. Those who get “information management” are usually going to be more interested in as open and raw a data dump as possible. The opportunities for mining and analysis are much broader in those cases.

    However, the problem with Twitter is with whom you are talking to. Only in the case of the advanced user that has carefully cultivated a network and clearly understands the following vs. follower model will your “Like” go where you mean it to. The average user doesn’t really care about telling the LoC that they liked whatever they liked, they want to tell their “friends.” The friend model is where Twitter breaks down some for the average and especially for the new user. Advanced users can as you suggest connect Twitter in to Facebook, but average and new users don’t, so they need to pick a network.

    I wrote a post that talks about this in more detail (with Venn diagrams!) over the weekend and posted it on my blog this morning:

    Perhaps mining the more structured data out of the Facebook walled garden and pumping it into the Twitter pool is something to explore.

  2. I’m inclined to agree with you that there are a set of circumstances, mostly error generated either by human or computer, or malicious acts which can make your data public. There are also the things you can’t control, such as a friend posting a picture of you in a compromising situation and tagging it, and allowing public, public access.

    However, it can be easily argued that all these conditions exist on non-social networking sites. For example, the government, financial institutions etc. have all made mistakes causing personal data to leak or made public.

    My Twitter feed has always been private aka protected. I monitor follow requests, check on the requestor and decline there requests on a regular basis if they are not at all symbiotic. ie theres no obvious connection between us, especially not just because I follow someone they follow. Alm ost no tweets of mine can be found in the google cache, sure you can find responses and mentions but all from people I’ve pre-vetted.

    The same is true of facebook, none of my facebook data is available, not withstanding the conditions described above.

    So, it’s really a question of how one choses ones friends. I doubt very few people signed on to facebook just to make their pictures, friends names, birthdays and other “personal” information publicly available by default.

    While the changes so far have not raised a revolt amongst the masses, they will once this information becomes more and more exploited.

    There is much Facebook needs to do in terms of monitoring application providers, ensuring they “do no evil” etc. before I for one would allow my facebook information, and that of my friends become “instantly social”.

    If my friends are sloppy and provide my information out inadvertently then I’m prepared to forgive, if they do it deliberately then I for one won’t have them as facebook friends, and we’ll have to do with real world friendship.

    After all, if a marketing company came up to you in a restaurant and asked you for the likes, date of birth, marital status, number of childern, other personal information and some photographs of the woman you were having dinner with, would you give it to them without asking her permission? And if you did, would you be surprised if she dropped you as a “friend”?

  3. Hi Jeff,

    The way I see it in this proposal, it doesn’t matter if you have any follower. Twitter is used as a dumb pipe, that moves your data from the sites that publish profile info about you (with your authorization) by tweeting for you to the sites that consume profile information about you by listening for your tweets (e.g. you can tell LinkedIn, Facebook and any other such site to listen to your tweets). In that configuration, it doesn’t matter if none of your friends look at your twitter feed. They’ll get your data as part of your Facebook/LinkedIn etc profile. Twitter is just an intermediary that allows you to have your data re-used beyond a single social network and allows you to monitor what sites share about you.

    One way to look at it is that the user doesn’t have to know about Twitter any more than the average Web user has to understand how DNS works. Almost (you still have to create the account).

    In short, my point is not that Twitter is a better social network than Facebook. It’s that Twitter is a great data bus for social profile information, on its way to various social networks.

  4. Making Twitter a pure information transport layer would have value in that way but it makes me thing about a couple possible barriers to that: Facebook won’t want to have to ask permission from Twitter the transport for how to use network data and second, Twitter may have trouble with monetization if they are purely a transport layer.

    Some of this could be achieved by the savvy user who stiches together (via plug-ins, api, etc.) a hybrid interface that uses Twitter like this but the average user won’t be able to do that and they will be back at the “pick the network” problem.

    Something else that comes to mind is that the lack of taxonomy in the Twitter stream (what hash or “^like” construct means what) makes harder to use in an ecosystem than a well defined construct such as the Facebook “like”. Amazon can’t look up or count on how to “like” something in the raw Twitter flow right now. This probably makes it easier for them to adopt something like Facebook “like.”

    Maybe someone needs to take a tool like TweetDeck and stretch it to use Twitter as you suggest and also overlay the taxonomy that will add the meaning for allowing Facebook “like” and things like “digg” to ride on top. The tool would have to be pretty ubiquitous for the taxonomy to stick, and I expect that to be a significant challenge as well.

    Good conversation… Thanks!

  5. This resonates heavily with another post I read today: *Top 10 reasons you should quit facebook*. I completely agree with both of you, and hope twitter steps up with this kind of idea. I prefer the public statuses in Twitter than the closeness of Facebook.


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  7. Note that ‘^’ has a well established notation semantic with cotags:
    See as an example.

    • Thanks for the comment Daniel. I wasn’t aware of this convention. We’re soon going to run out of non-alphabetical characters (especially if we limit ourselves to those easily accessible on mobile phones). Forget the IPv4 crisis, we first need to deal with the great Twitter markers shortage!

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