Facebook’s recent move: peeling the onion

I was very excited yesterday by the potential of yesterday’s Facebook announcement.  Why?  Because up until now, all the information from Facebook has been visible only within their walled garden.  Opening up the “news feed” API means that I can write an application which acts on my behalf, pulls down that information, and lets me do something interesting with it.

What do I mean by interesting?

Well, maybe I want to filter with a better level of granularity than Facebook’s default interface provides.  Maybe I want to be able to say, “If someone publishes more than 3 status updates from an application in a row, block that application for 24 hours.”  Maybe I’m a huge fan of Bejeweled Blitz and I want to keep a running archive of all my friends’ highest scores.  Or maybe I want to search.

Search is where the real magic is. I’m not even that much of a Facebook power user and there have been at least a half-dozen times in the past year when I’ve wanted to find something from my update stream.  Someone reviewed a movie and a month later I wanted to pull up their review so I could tell them I agreed/disagreed with them.  Someone shared a link and I finally “got” what they were talking about and I wanted to leave a comment.  Search lets me do all that.

By opening up the API, Facebook is giving their users the ability to turn a “stream” into a “feed” that can be archived and searched.  You could do this today with a trivial application and existing desktop search programs.

But as Scoble pointed out, this is only half the story.  Facebook has a lot more data available than just the event stream.  To quote him briefly:

When I can ask Facebook “what sushi restaurants do my friends like?” ONLY THEN will you know that Facebook is getting close to the gold mine.  The thing is, Facebook doesn’t want to let you build that kind of business using its data.

Facebook needs that data in order to have any promise of turning a profit.  And this is the real problem Facebook is facing.  The only asset they have is information, and they’re still settling for coming up with easily-blocked ads as a way of monetizing it.  Meanwhile, there’s a small but growing subset of their user base who understands how valuable that information is and is itching for a way to get at it.

What’s the solution that lets Facebook thrive but really opens up the door for the social web of the next decade?  I don’t know.  This is a start, but this is not the whole picture.