With friends like Facebook: Should we 'like' the social network's new features?

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Last week Facebook, once again, tried to get everyone to accept its friend request. At its developer-centric F8 conference, the social network announced App Links and Anonymous Login.

App Links allows mobile apps to easily exchange information without having to go through a web browser. Anonymous Login allows you to use your Facebook credentials to log into a Facebook-friendly site without giving up your data to that site.

But, should those new features convince us that the network is our new BFF? Well, as with many relationships on Facebook, it's complicated.

App Links is a tricky bit of business. We are all familiar with hyperlinks on the web. You click on one and are whisked to another page. But, what if you want to click on a button in one app on your smartphone or tablet and need it to trigger a specific page or action in another app? Say, for example, you're in flickr and want to use Snapseed to edit a picture. And, what if you want to do that no matter if you're using an Android, iOS or Windows smartphone? Right now, there's no easy way. Facebook wants App Links to change that. It's offering the solution as a free, open-source platform that essentially is the glue that will hold together mobile apps, regardless of platforms. 

In short, Facebook wants to out-Google, Google, in the app space. Google's been brilliant at monetizing our interest in browser-based web content. But, more and more often, we're getting our info, entertainment and social connections via stand-alone applications on mobile devices, not via browsers. 

And, right now, that means we're off the radar for Google. With App Links, Facebook will be able to follow us from app to app, gathering data as we hop, skip and jump. It will be able to offer app developers an ad network with a reach that spans far beyond a single application. And, like Google, it will be harvesting a metric buttload of behavioural data as it does so. 

But, as other observers have pointed out, releasing details about App Links just a few weeks before both Google and Apple host their own developers conferences (Google I/O and WWDC) is either an incredible act of stupidity or hubris. I'll go with hubris for $200.

It is impossible to imagine that either Google, which has been shortening its leash on Android, or Apple, which is refining iOS 8 right now, will allow Facebook's shot across the bow to go unanswered. Both will offer their own deep linking between apps and both could easily disable Facebook's. If I thought App Links had a hope in hell of succeeding, I'd be very worried about a company like Facebook having that kind of control. As it is, I'll just be running a death pool.

The Anonymous Login is a bit of a magician's misdirection. It appears that Facebook is doing you a favour by not passing your data along to sites that let you log in via the social network. And, it's true, it's a big improvement. But, let's not forget that the social network started sharing that data in ways that pissed off a lot of people to begin with. So, it's a little like someone tossing a bucket of pig shit on you then expecting thanks for the free shower.

Plus, while Facebook will keep that data from its partners, it will continue to collect it itself, just like with App Links. 

So, my advice is the same everyone gives about Facebook. Don't be too quick to friend somebody you don't know.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, below:


Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: SimonQ錫濛譙/flickr

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