The contextual and exponential future of Facebook

Facebook book

Rocky Barbanica and I visited Facebook’s headquarters today and interviewed a bunch of people for the book “Age of Context” that I’m writing with Shel Israel.

What’s the age of context? Five radically expanding technologies/data types.

1. Sensors.
2. Wearable computing.
3. Big Databases.
4. Social network behavior.
5. Location.

What will that bring for consumers? Highly personalized experiences and products. For companies? An extraordinary level of contextual business intelligence: clear vision of what your business will be and who your customer is.

I interview Facebook's Mike Shaver

I met with people like Mike Shaver, director of engineering, at Facebook. Listen in:

He talks about context, and how different contexts, like, say, when you’re driving, which is different than when you are reading Facebook on your couch, and is different than if you were skiing down a slope, could be used to bring different items to you.

He told me before we started recording that Facebook is, indeed, trying to pick the best items for you to see. It’s a difficult job because there so many different kinds of users. My dad, for instance, might only read Facebook once a week and never clicks like on his items. Me? I read Facebook every few minutes and click like on thousands of things a week.

Facebook has to pick, out of millions of potential messages, only about 30 for us each to see, each time we refresh the page (or, better yet, drag down on the mobile app).

It’s clear Facebook is also in the midst of a huge shift: one from web pages that have no contextual data to mobile and wearable computers where there is a huge amount of contextual data. My desktop computer doesn’t let me use it in different contexts like driving, skiing, running, eating, or shopping at the local mall. My mobile phone does. Facebook is in the middle of being rebuilt for mobile users, and soon, wearable computer users and maybe automobile heads up display users. Oakley, for instance, just started selling ski goggles that have heads up displays in them (we did a separate interview with that team).

An office at Facebook

One thing I noticed, after having conversations with about seven of Facebook’s execs, is that some seem to be ahead of the rest of the company in their thinking. Sam Lessin, who is director of product, talked to me about the exponential growth in identity information and the kinds of personalized, contextual, experiences that will enable in the future. Imagine walking into a bar you’ve never been into before and they say “hey, Robert Scoble, welcome, do you want your usual Oban whisky?” Or, imagine skiing at Squaw Valley and they will know that you are probably hungry, since every day you check into a lunch place by 1:30 p.m. and it’s now 1:45 and you haven’t eaten yet. “Hey, Mr. Scoble, are you hungry yet? Our sushi restaurant has a seat available after your next run.” Then imagine that I can invite a friend to join me, all via our wearable computers, and I learn that that friend doesn’t like Sushi “hey, you invited Mr. Smith to join you, but we know he doesn’t like sushi, would you like to switch to our steak restaurant instead?” That is all very possible, and Lessin explains how that might work.

We also talked about what it was like to build for a billion users compared to building at a startup with a few thousand users.

Hack at Facebook

Finally, I met Mike Schroepfer, vice president of engineering. His teams, when they check in code, affect more than a billion people now. Think about the power to screw up that that gives an engineer. He told me that keeping up with exponentially-growing contextual data about all of us is very difficult. They rebuilt their engineering teams to check in code twice a day and ensure that Facebook doesn’t slow down as it gets more engineers. He showed me the engineering team, which mostly works in one big room so that system conditions can be discussed fast.

This was an extraordinary way to get inside one of the world’s great companies and hear how they think. Hope you enjoyed it.

By the way, while I was there, they rolled out a new feature: nearby (here’s Techcrunch’s writeup of the new feature). They gave me access while I was meeting there and I checked into one of the restaurants there (free food baby).

We’ll be back at Facebook on Wednesday to meet with the team that wrote that feature. It’s barely the start of where Facebook’s information discovery features are going. Hint: the future is contextual, which will let them build new kinds of search/discovery features.

Some things I learned, while there:

1. Everything you do on Facebook will affect what comes in your view in the future. If you like crappy things that you don’t care about, you’ll see more crappy brands that you don’t care about in the future and it might even affect your experiences when you walk into bars, churches, schools, shopping malls, etc. Using Highlight, for instance, I can see what kinds of things you like and I’ll treat you a lot differently based on what you’ve liked.

2. Facebook is teachable. If you hide items, you’ll see fewer of those kinds of items in the future. Like more items and you’ll see more of those in the future.

3. Facebook is looking to help you distribute content to who you want to distribute to. Facebook gets a lot better if you put each of your friends into either your “close friend” or “acquaintance” list. Put family members on your family list, and you’ll be able to send photos just to your family members very easily. Spending some time tuning your friends lists dramatically increases the quality of your feeds and also lets you see items from your friends and family so you don’t miss them.

4. Facebook’s new gift feature will be able to build new kinds of stores in the future. If I buy a gift, like I did for Sam Levin, who got engaged last night, Facebook can learn about what kinds of things I like to buy for people, but it also lets Sam switch his gift without letting me know, so now Facebook knows more about the kinds of things Sam likes to receive.

Anyway, hope you enjoy this look inside Facebook and also appreciate that you get to see the raw material for the writing of our book, which should be out in Q3, 2013. Here’s some other photos from the campus.

Facebook's headquarters

Fun at Facebook, not in Kansas anymore

Hack at Facebook

Ice cream at Facebook

Epic cafe at Facebook

Facebook clothes at company store

Facebook teddy bears

Facebook pens

Mark Zuckerberg on wall at Facebook headquarters