An opportunity that Facebook is missing

Facebook is building an amazing, enduring business based on data. Data about
people, and the connections between people. And it is about real people – unlike
(say) Twitter, Facebook has maintained a razor-sharp focus on ensuring it has real
people with known identities.

Facebook. Data that's meaningful, but it's unstructured.

Facebook is my favorite web entry point. But there’s something important they’re not doing that is about me and my connections. (And I should say at this point that I’m happy to share my personal data with Facebook.)

We create and manage structured data, and we care about manipulating it.
Facebook isn’t a great place to manage that data. Here’s an example:
I’ve been a runner for nearly 20 years. For the first 10, I used my Palm Pilot or some
other device with a spreadsheet to track my runs: time, distance, how I felt. I then
had it compute total time for the year, number of runs, total distance for the year,
average time per kilometer, and so on. It was pretty motivational — can I beat the number of runs I did last year? Am I slowing down? Am I running enough miles? It’s the kind of foundation that companies such as fitbit are based on.

There’s lots of other structure in life: calendars, weather, budgets, exercise, television schedules, sporting calendars, airline travel, and so on. Facebook isn’t a great place to store that data as it applies to you, your friends, or to manipulate it. How much did I spend last month? How many miles did I fly last year? Where did I travel in 2011? How many baseball games did I attend in the past 5 years? What time on average do my friends go to bed? Do I eat more or less calories than my average friend in the eBay list? What are the top ten songs my friends from school listen to?

Fitbit. The power of structured data -- my steps, active minutes, and more.

Structured data is inherently easier to manipulate, understand, and monetize with ads. It’s easier to find patterns (Hugh seems to travel to Australia every Christmas). It’s easier to predict from (Hugh has run nearly 200 miles in the past few months, it’s time for new sneakers). It’s easier to sell a substitution (Hugh, did you know that Virgin also flies that route, and they do it cheaper?).

You could argue they’re edging in that direction: the recent changes to the profile page have been working toward more structure. Not that they’ve made this transition well (and I’m not denying it is hard). A couple of years ago they massacred my unstructured text about favorite movies, music, TV shows, and so on by trying to force it into a structured schema. They completely destroyed my profile page – the music was too obscure, I’d made a few
jokes in my hobbies, and so on, and it didn’t map into any neat schema. Perhaps they should have started with a little more structure in the beginning.

But it was a move towards more structure. The timeline is moving in that direction too – though I am not sure that’s the fundamental reason for it, it’s probably about trying to simply get more data of any type. Sure, they’ve always had birth dates for the purpose of birthday reminders — a good example of what can be done with structured data. And there’s some other basic structured data too – I’m not arguing they have none.

Adding structured data, and ways to manipulate it, is something Facebook needs. And it’s a hole in the online social world. The challenge is how to do it right: blending a structured experience into an inherently simple, unstructured stream of text and media is probably not easy. Particularly when you want to provide search over it all — maybe a topic for another time…

That’s my opinion. What do you think?

2 thoughts on “An opportunity that Facebook is missing

  1. Ben Rollins

    I agree that adding this sort of thing would help to make Facebook a more “complete” social environment.The structured component doesn’t need to blend into the timeline, I don’t think. It could be specified by the user and aggregated in a separate area, like photo albums or the About data, and then information sent to the feed when, say, milestones are reached (“Hugh has hit a new record running distance this month”, “Hugh has reached his target weight”).

    One big challenge, given that many people are already storing this sort of data elsewhere – fitbit, runkeeper, etc – would be deciding whether to attempt to surpass the user experience of those specialist sites and hence poach people away from them, or simply broker deals with them to allow the data to sync from one to the other.

  2. delingat

    If we assume that there are enough people that trust facebook with even more of their personal data (I would, but lot’s of people I know don’t) should Facebook build the user experience for entering, analyzing, and sharing the data?
    In my opinion that is not the major strength of a platform company. I would love, though to facebook-enable all my apps. So the way forward would be to continue to evolve the open graph (https://developers.facebook.com/docs/opengraph/keyconcepts/) by a few concepts to allow more and more complex structured data to be added but not try to build the front end experience yourself. They might need to prototype and showcase a few examples to show what’s possible but should not go beyond that.

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