Whisper it, but has anybody noticed the various developments to Facebook which seems to be making it a better environment to work in?

There have been developments to the user interface, such as the Facebook status no longer has to start with “Brian is …” and messages delivered via email now contain the contents of the message, and not just the URI you have to go to in order to read the message.  Simple developments, but much welcomed by many Facebook users, I suspect.

It is also pleasing to see serious service providers providing access to their services through Facebook – just before Christmas, for example, Lorcan Dempsey commented on the availability of the Worldcat application for Facebook, which is illustrated below.

Worldcat for Facebook

The research community is also engaging with Facebook.  I have recently joined the Facebook: Academic Research group which describes itself as “A group for anyone conducting (or interested in) academic research into Facebook. This includes sociologists, computer scientists, psychologists, information scientists, computer scientists, educators, philosophers, etc.

I also noticed recently that several of my friends had joined The Semantic Web – Benefits, Education & Outreachgroup. I must admit that I was very pleased to see the pragmatic approach which is being taken by many of the Semantic Web evangelists in this group. One message addressed the question “Why create a facebook group to discuss the semantic web?” by suggesting “for the same reason tv shows are advertised on radio and tv schedules are listed in newspapers and magazines. You have to reach out to people where they are if you want to bring them somewhere new.

In this group a thread on Getting FaceBook to open up provided a link to the Facebook Foaf Generator software which has been written by Mathew Rowe, a PhD student at Sheffield University.  The Foaf Generator is “a tool that generates a Foaf file from your Facebook profile, compiled from the information that Facebook has stored about you. It also includes details about your friends, along with geographical placement of your current location or hometown“.

Visualisation of FOAF file created from Facebook dataAs someone who has written a paper which explored the potential of FOAF back in 2004 I was intrigued by the possibility of making my Facebook data available as a FOAF file and then using a FOAF application to view the data. So I installed the application and created a FOAF file of my Facebook contacts. I explored several FOAF viewers before deciding that the Tabulator widget for the Opera Web browser seemed to provide the richest interface, and a screen shot of this is shown. 

What, then, does this show? Well it does seem to be possible to extract data from Facebook and make it available for use by other applications.  

Has the problem of data being trapped within Facebook now been solved? I don’t think so – remember that this is an experimental prototype developed by a PhD student, so there can be no guarantee of the quality of the service or that it will be available on a long term basis. And one simple experiment isn’t enough to explore how sophisticated (or not) the data export capabilities are. Perhaps more interestingly, though, are the ethics of exporting personal data to other applications.  The data I have received from my friends (their photos, contact details, interests, etc.)  has only been made available once we have mutually accepted friendship invitations.  Wouldn’t making a FOAF file of such data openly available infringe the implied privacy settings?   Or to put it another way, although Facebook may be improving, could it become too open?