Facebook is leveraging its 400 million user base to stamp a vision of a socially driven Internet onto the web's most popular sites, in a move that has far-reaching business and privacy implications.
The hyper-popular social networking site is expanding to provide Facebook-like functionality to almost any website that wants it -- in effect, turning a user's Facebook account into something like a personalized login to websites ranging from on-line radio stations to news sites.
For example, when a user visits a news website partnered with Facebook, they may see a list of stories their friends "like," as well as recommended stories based on friends' activity. In turn, the stories that users like filter back to their Facebook feeds, creating a cycle of information.
(The Globe and Mail is one of the Facebook launch partners embedding the service on its site).
"The Web is at a really important turning point now," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Wednesday at a conference for Web and software developers in San Francisco. "Most things aren't social and they don't use your real identity. This is really starting to change."
The world's largest online social network has long insisted, with varying success, that its users go by their real identities when they sign up for the service, offering a contrast to the culture of pseudonyms common elsewhere online.
"There is an old saying that says when you go to heaven, all of your friends are there and everything is just the way you want it to be," Mr. Zuckerberg said Wednesday. "Let's make a world that's that good."
If successful, Facebook's strategy could fundamentally change the way the web works, turning every website visit into an experience customized by a visitor's social network. The company started down that road in 2008, when it introduced Facebook Connect, a service that allowed users to log on to third-party websites using their Facebook information. With Wednesday's announcement, the company takes that strategy a step further, essentially embedding the social experience in any website.
"If Facebook Connect was about helping you sign in to websites using your Facebook ID, they're extending the experience to the very fabric of a website so that a user's experience on a connected website will be influenced by their social network," Jonathan Yarmis, an analyst at Ovum, said in a note.
"I think these are hugely significant announcements that dramatically extend the relevance of Facebook, and social networks in general."
But the privacy implications are also significant. Facebook will allow some third-party websites to store information about Facebook users, a move that's already attracting criticism. Indeed, as privacy officials gather in Washington, D.C., to discuss the protection of web users' personal information this week, Facebook's move is not likely to go unnoticed.
The company also announced it will use its own virtual currency - "Facebook credits" - for all purchases made within the site. Users often buy virtual items for the slew of games available on the site, for example. Companies such as Microsoft have tried the same strategy with other on-line services, to generally negative reviews.
By expanding beyond the walls of its own site, Facebook takes direct aim at Google for online advertising supremacy. Increasingly, the social network's detailed information about users - everything from marital status to favourite songs - is becoming a higher-value commodity for advertisers than Google's more algorithmic data about web viewing habits. Wednesday's announcement is likely to generate significantly more of that data for Facebook, further pitting the site's potential for profitability against its commitment to user privacy.
With files from The Associated Press