Does Facebook Connect Deliver on its Promise?

The announcement of Facebook Connect in May 2008 brought the next major chapter in the Facebook platform story. After building the first and most successful social networking platform, Facebook decided to expand beyond its own destination to bring the power of the social graph to any third party site.

Facebook Connect - Button

Facebook Connect promised to deliver on the five following tenants: trusted authentication, real identity, friend linking, dynamic privacy, and social distribution. In the half a year since the announcement, how has Facebook Connect done?

Let's take a closer look at how Facebook Connect has fared on each of these tenants.

Trusted Authentication
Facebook Connect has by far the best authentication and single sign-on solution to date. It wins due to its simple and clear user experience. While Windows Live ID, OpenID, Google Friend Connect, and others have in the past provided single sign-on solutions, none saw significant traction. The most important innovation this time around is a rather simple one: Facebook Connect provides a javascript-based light box sign-in screen on the same page without redirecting the user to a third party site for authentication. In addition, the user simply logs into Facebook from the light box if they aren't already (but who isn't always logged into Facebook these days), and then simply authorizes the app with one click.

Facebook Connect - Dialog

It's very satisfying to go to a Connect-enabled site, hit the Connect button, select authorize, and immediately have a presence on a site. No longer is there the friction of deciding whether to go through the hassle of creating an account, setting up a password, and giving away additional personal info just to begin to experience a site's benefits.

Facebook has stated that many sites are already seeing significant success with trusted login:

Some sites that have chosen to include login have already told us that they have seen a two-time or more increase in registrations and 2/3 of users creating accounts via Facebook Connect.

Real Identity
In addition to the sign-on experience, Facebook Connect provides publisher's with rich access to authentic user profile data, including profile picture, real name, birthday, location, relationship status, work history, and much more.

For many small publisher's, users will be much more willing to supply this data to Facebook and not likely to take the time to do so on your own site. Therefore this is a great opportunity for publishers to take advantage of access to this info as well as further simplify their site's registration process.

One important caveat though is you do not get access to a user's email address, which is often one of the most important profile fields during a registration process. Due to privacy and spam concerns, Facebook prevents access to this info. A publisher then has two alternatives. On one hand, a publisher can prompt for an email address outside of the Facebook Connect registration process. While this provides the greatest control, additional profile fields will reduce some of the friction-free benefits of Connect. The alternate approach is to leverage the email methods Facebook provides. For each Facebook Connect authenticated user, you are provided a proxied email address which you can use to email the user. However, this approach does have several constraints. The total number of emails you can send the user is governed by Facebook email limits, thus forcing you to adhere to Facebook messaging constraints. In addition, keep in mind you'll have to prompt the Facebook user with a Facebook permission javascript window to have the user opt-in to email notifications from your application prior to leveraging theproxied email address.

Facebook Connect - Email Permission

Friend Linking
One of the strongest promises of Facebook Connect is to allow a user to take their social graph with them across the web. As users come to your site and connect through Facebook Connect, they are automatically able to see which of their friends are already on the site and see their activities.

Once you have a decent community of Facebook Connect users, this works quite well. Since you have access to all of a user's friends' Facebook uid's, you can now show activity of friend's already using your service.

The problem though comes initially when you launch a Facebook Connect implementation. If you have a large existing user base that has not yet connected via Facebook Connect, then no friends will show up for a new Facebook Connect user, even if their friends exist on the site using the previous authentication mechanism. To help solve this problem, Facebook provides a publisher the ability to submit hashes of email addresses for all of their existing users to Facebook, so that the publisher can prompt a new Facebook Connect user with an invitation dialog to invite existing users of the site to connect via Facebook Connect so they can share friend connections. While this is a useful feature, it requires double opt-in from both the user and their friends. Many who receive such invites may choose to ignore them, making it difficult to jump start the social graph process with an existing user base. Facebook decided to require the double opt-in to ensure privacy for all Facebook users and avoid some of the issues of the previous Beacon product.

Facebook Connect - Invitation

Dynamic Privacy
One tenant Facebook strongly advocates as a real win for Facebook Connect is dynamic privacy. This is an important pillar for Facebook given its previous blunder with Beacon. Users are now in full control, allowing them to choose whether to connect to each site with Facebook Connect, whether to connect existing publisher user accounts with Connect, and the ability to share and un-share profile information with sites and friends.

From a publisher's stand point though, this really just creates implementation limitations. Since all data from Facebook Connect is subject to the Facebook Platform TOS, which limits data caching to 24 hours, a publisher needs to adhere to this restriction and always pull data dynamically from Facebook.

Social Distribution
Facebook Connect also allows users to share their activities back to Facebook in their profile Wall and News Feed. This allows users to share their experiences with your site with their friends and hopefully drive more awareness of your site through Facebook feed channels.

Facebook makes it easy to pop-up a javascript light-box window to allow a user to approve the feed story. It even provides simple options for a full, short, or one-line story, so the user can decide how much they wish to emphasize this activity. While this is an opt-in message (again, correcting their mistakes from Beacon), a user can select to save their preference for this specific activity so future stories can be posted without further approval.

Facebook Connect - Feed Form

While this is definitely a valuable feature for users who are seeking to make all their activities viewable from Facebook, I wouldn't expect this to generate much traffic to your destination site. In the good days of the Facebook Platform, much of the platform growth was due to viral feed stories, notifications, and invitations. As users began to find these channels considerably spammy , Facebook significantly locked down all of them. These days you rarely see many third party app news stories in the News Feed due such limitations. I expect that right now Facebook is allowing Facebook Connect stories to crop up to encourage publishers and user's to use Facebook Connect, but I suspect over time these will also be constrained. In addition, Facebook has little desire to encourage users to leave Facebook and thus is at odds with ramping up distribution to third party sites.

For small publishers, Facebook Connect is a definitive win for its trusted authentication, real identity, and friend linking capabilities. It makes it easy to "socialize" a website that has classically been a straight content site or niche community by significantly reducing friction.

While Facebook Connect does provide value for large publishers as well, there are key issues that publishers must carefully think through before adopting Connect, including access to an email address, merging their existing social graph with Facebook Connect, dealing with Facebook TOS caching restrictions, and more.

To date we have seen some quick and obvious wins from Facebook Connect, including blog comments and socializing content sites. However I'm still waiting for a truly innovative Facebook Connect implementation that goes beyond basic authentication and friend linking to really take advantage of all that Facebook integration has to offer. Is your site ready to take on my challenge?

For those getting started with Facebook Connect, check out these resources:
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