How Facebook Could Organize the Internet

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If Facebook has its way, you'll never surf the same way again.

The company announced big plans this week that enable developers to label their sites and exchange information about Facebook users, potentially setting the stage to better organize the web.

The idea for such a reorganization has been around for a long time. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, years ago envisioned the next stage in the web's evolution, calling it the Semantic Web. It would, he wrote, "bring structure to the meaningful content of Web pages," enabling computers to understand that content and how it relates to other sites and information across the internet. Change has been slow because standards are hard to set and enforce, but Facebook's scale could accelerate the transformation.

First, you have to understand how Facebook plans to expand its reach. The company is extending its plumbing to other sites to become a sort of clearinghouse on how its 400 million users navigate the web. Visit review site Yelp.com, one of three current partner sites, and the site can find out which of your Facebook friends are on the site and then show recent reviews and photos they've uploaded. Yelp does this by accessing Open Graph, the new Facebook framework that allows developers to exchange information. Using Open Graph, sites can create subsets around users' interests and exchange that information with one another, TechCrunch reports:

Yelp might create one around restaurants, Pandora might create one around music, Netflix around movies. Add some "like" buttons and anytime someone likes a restaurant, song, or movie anywhere on the Web with a Facebook like button, that information will flow back into the Open Graph. So that Yelp will know what restaurants you and your friends have liked elsewhere and take that into consideration when giving you recommendations, or Pandora with music, and so on. (Yelp and Pandora are real examples, Netflix isn't).

Given its scale, Facebook could end up completely transforming the web and may have even won the war against Google. If enough sites buy in, Facebook would have helped set a standard that would usher in a long-awaited, new era, writes Newsweek's Barrett Sheridan:

Computer scientists have long envisioned a Web 3.0, a smarter Internet that understands the difference between objects, people, places, animals, etc. In other words, computers and servers should know that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an object, and in particular it's a film, and in particular a film by Michel Gondry, who is a person. Right now computers see words like "Michel Gondry" only as dumb, meaningless text. Facebook wants to change that--which is great. But it also plans to own that information--which is scary.

Privacy concerns abound and could block Facebook's march to control the web. So could other companies if they refuse to participate. But Facebook's plans are ambitious and, if it succeeds, it could become more than just a social network.

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Niraj Chokshi is a former staff editor at TheAtlantic.com, where he wrote about technology. He is currently freelancing and can be reached through his personal website, NirajC.com. More

Niraj previously reported on the business of the nation's largest law firms for The Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper. He has also been published in The Hartford Courant, The Seattle Times and The Age, in Melbourne, Australia. He's also a longtime programmer and sometimes website designer.
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