Facebook as Personal Data Store

With over 150 million people using Facebook Connect every month at over 1 million websites, Facebook has ushered in a new era, as the world’s largest personal data store.

Personal Data Stores

Personal data stores allow individuals to share online data with service providers. Facebook Connect users can give third-party web sites like Digg, Amazon, and YouTube access to information stored at Facebook, turning Facebook into a personal data store for over 500 million people.

What makes personal data stores special is the seamless sharing with websites for real-time personalization of the web. It’s more than just file back-up or synchronization.  It’s not just publishing “content” to our friends or the public. Personal data stores allow us to bring our information to websites when we want to. It’s a way to treat the user as the point of integration.

Personal data stores can be anywhere, shared with websites whenever we want. Consider giving FedexKinko’s a link to a Flickr account so they can download photos to print a new calendar. Or giving a new doctor permission to access our personal health history rather than filling out a paper form while we sit in the waiting room. Or giving a website access to our Outlook contact list on our desktop computer so they can give us birthday reminders and gift suggestions. The key is user-managed access, wherever the data lives. Facebook Connect gives this kind of access control over all the data we store at Facebook, enabling web-wide personalization built around the individual.

Mash-ups

In recent years, mash-ups and real-time APIs have made it easier and easier for companies to combine information from different services into a single user experience. Instead of building bigger and more complicated proprietary data silos, companies take advantage of services like Google Maps and IP-address geolocation, using real-time information to enhance their websites.

Some service are even built around other companies’ data: Twitter clients like Seesmic and Tweetdeck, which access our Twitter data on our behalf; Trillian, which works with various instant messaging networks; and Mint, which pulls in our financial data from hundreds of websites. The “real-time web” is constructed on the fly, using linked data and real-time APIs to dynamically customize services for each of us.

Personal data stores let us bring our own data to the mash-up party. Not only do we have better control over who sees what, we can provide more timely, higher quality data than service providers can get from other sources. Effective integration with personal data stores means no more ads for that car we’ve already bought; no more recommendations based on false assumptions. Unfortunately, data in the wild is constantly becoming outdated, miscopied, and misconstrued, because that’s the best companies can do using the billions of dollars worth of proprietary data that’s gathered about us rather than provided by us. Personal data stores easily allow individuals to give the most relevant, most up-to-date information to just those companies we want to do business with. That means not just better data, but more intimate relationships with our favorite companies and organizations.

Perhaps the most liberating aspect of personal data stores is that everyone gets to have as many as we want. We all have our favorite websites for different online activities. As those sites open up their data with a user-driven permissions mechanism, they become personal data stores. So, whether it’s YouTube for videos, Flickr for Photos, Foursquare for location updates, TripIt for travel plans, or RunKeeper for exercise data, we get to bring our best data with us wherever we go. Savvy websites pull in this high quality data to personalize our visits, while those with unique data open it up for use elsewhere to maximize value to their users, which is exactly what Facebook is doing with Facebook Connect.

Facebook Connect

Facebook Connect makes this kind of access simple for everyone, with industry changing adoption rates. Over 66% of the top 100 websites and over 1 million total websites now integrate with Facebook in some way. Nearly 1/3 of Facebook users—over 150 million people—use Facebook Connect every month. Every time we do, we give websites access to information stored in our Facebook accounts, such as our name, gender, names of our friends, and all the posts currently on our wall or posted by us. It’s an archetypal personal data store, with highly credible and timely data in the form of our friend list and our status updates. Sure, Facebook Connect is still far too limited in the amount of information we can store and we lack control over how that information gets used… but architecturally, Facebook has changed the game for a vast portion of the World Wide Web.

To find out what information Facebook is sharing, I built a website called “I Shared What?!?“, an information sharing simulator for Facebook. The site uses javascript and Facebook Connect to display everything it can get from Facebook. Visitors see in specific detail exactly what they share when hitting the “allow” button in the Facebook Connect permissions dialog.

Facebook uses open standard technology to bring mash-ups to a new level, built on information provided directly by the user, in real-time, with minimal fuss or bother. There are shortcomings, of course. A lot of them, but I’ll save those for future posts. For now, think of Facebook as the 800 pound icebreaker of a new way for companies to connect with their customers.

To this veteran VRM evangelist, Facebook has done more in 2010 to usher in the era of the personal data store than anyone, ever. In one fell swoop, Facebook launched a World Wide Web built around the individual instead of websites, introducing the personal data store to 500 million people and over one million websites.

Unexpectedly, Facebook has moved VRM from a conversation about envisioning a future to one about deployed services with real users, being adopted by real companies, today. We still have a lot of work to do to figure out how to make this all work right—legally, financially, technically—but it’s illuminating and inspiring to see the successes and failures of real, widely-deployed services. Seeing what Amazon or Rotten Tomatos or Pandora do with information from a real personal data store moves the conversation forward in ways no theoretical argument can.

There remain significant privacy issues and far too much proprietary lock-in, but for the first time, we can point to a mainstream service and say “Like that!  That’s what we’ve been talking about. But different!”