This post was written by Andrew Gossen, Senior Director of Social Media Strategy at Cornell University and co-chair of the Task Force on Social Media for CASE's Commission on Alumni Relations.It may be months before the full scope of Facebook’s new Open Graph initiative becomes apparent. The Internet is buzzing about its effect on e-commerce and businesses, as well as the obligatory concerns about privacy and explanations of how to disable the new functionality.
For those new to Open Graph, here’s a simplified breakdown of the concept. Paraphrasing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, a “social graph” is a map of the connections between people and the things they care about. Theoretically, it could show how everybody is connected to everything. Up until now, Facebook has focused on the connections between people. With Open Graph, Facebook's focus now encompasses the connections between people and things. They’ve developed a way to make transmitting social activity between Facebook and web pages outside of Facebook almost seamless. Websites can use these new tools to personalize users' online experience, making it more social.
Two key features make this happen:
- Social plugins: Snippets of code that make it easy to add basic connections to Facebook on your website. Examples include the “like” and “recommend” buttons.
- Open Graph API: The computer code that developers can use to further integrate web sites into Facebook's Open Graph. (API means "application programming interface.")
The Open Graph initiative could change the way that alumni and donors think about our websites and, perhaps, our closed online alumni communities. Suddenly, it’s easy to make your static, traditional website more social.
- With a few simple additional lines of code to your site, users can now “like” or "recommend" your web pages.
- This activity appears on the users’ profile pages within Facebook.
Clicking on the links drives users back to your website, not to your pages on Facebook. Up until now, traffic could only come to your website from Facebook if a user used the “share” feature to post a link to your site; now, the link is available to users’ networks as soon as they click the “like” button on your page. The connection is much more effortless.
- Activity using the social plugins displays on your web pages, and makes it possible for users to engage in activity on Facebook from your web page itself.
- If users’ browsers are logged into Facebook, the transition between your pages and Facebook is seamless. The social plugin pulls into your site information about which of the users' Facebook friends have also “liked” that page, and the line between the social web and your website becomes blurred.
It’s still early, but here are initial thoughts about seven important aspects of the Open Graph:
- The fact that alumni can now interact with us and with each other from wherever they spend time online is a huge gain.
- Our web pages may need to become more “social media” in feel. Static pages broken up into huge blocks of text (already poor practice) are going to appear even worse.
- There’s a new horizon of possibility for the viral dissemination of your site’s content.
- Organizations that have allowed their websites to languish while they poured resources into “walled garden” online communities may have to focus on their own web presence again.
- Increasingly-social organizational web pages will pose a challenge to some components of “walled garden” communities. If alumni can interact with their fellow alumni and their alma mater without having to log in to a separate site, they’ll stay in the space where they already spend most of their online time. In real life, people’s networks extend beyond fellow alumni. The artificial constraints of the “walled garden” environment place the institution, not the user, at the center of the experience. And if the Web 2.0 revolution has taught us anything, it’s that users prefer the latter model. True, some vendors have built applications that provide a bridge between the “walled garden” communities and Facebook, but it’s going to be tough to beat the seamlessness of the social plugin experience.
- As our developers become more familiar with the Open Graph API and what it can do, it may be possible for our web pages to reflect the interests of individual alumni. Remember, these tools are a two-way street. Facebook will know which content Facebook users have liked or recommended on your own pages. And in theory, you will know what those users have liked or recommended elsewhere, within Facebook or across the web. If a user has watched clips from the TV show Glee, for instance, your web page could highlight your collegiate a cappella groups when he visits. An institutional web page that reflects a user’s interests and history the same way Amazon.com does is very appealing, and Facebook's tools can make this happen in a way that few of us could ever develop ourselves.
- Should we be re-evaluating our strategic plans in light of all this? These tools could make it easier for our websites to be social, dynamic, and customized to our alumni. Alumni expectations of how a website should look and feel are being shaped by the adoption of these tools by other businesses and organizations, so if we don’t adapt, our web presences will look increasingly stodgy in comparison. (Over 50,000 websites began using the new toolkit in the first week of its release.) Only alumni who use Facebook will get the full benefit of the enhanced user experience. Therefore (and this is exactly how Facebook wants it to play out), you could argue that an organization’s strategic plan ought to include getting as many constituents as possible on Facebook.
I’ll address that in an upcoming post on Alumni Futures.