Facebook's Big Year: A Whole New Approach to its API, New Types of User Data, and Major Deprecations

The Facebook API saw huge changes in 2010 that moved the service away from being a closed network and towards being a more open community. The leading social network site must be doing something right on that front. Facebook was the third most popular service for use in new mashups last year, nearly doubling its total number in our directory.

The big changes started in April, with Facebook's announcement of its new Facebook Graph API and Open Graph Protocol. At the heart of these moves was a shift in focus towards the connections between people and things within Facebook—and beyond it. For example, the Graph API allows developers to access information about a user in terms of the things he or she likes, but also to access things in terms of the users who like it.

There's also a lot more to "like" through Facebook that ever before. Before Facebook's April announcement, users could become "fans" or organization pages somewhat like they become friends of other users. Facebook changed the "become a fan" option to "like" and expanded its scope through the Open Graph protocol to anything on the web with a unique URL. Within Facebook, liking expanded beyond pages to include comments, photos, videos, wall posts... just about anything.

The trends of focusing on relationships between entities and opening up the kinds of entities to include more and more types have continued over the course of the year. Facebook's new features along these lines are displacing older ones. For example, in December a new version of the user profile was announced that had to do with a lot more than layout.

The new profile system includes new personal information categories for "favorite sports teams," "people who inspire me," a drill-down into employment details all the way to the level of current and past projects, and more. All of these along with established categories like interests, activities, favorite movies and the rest aren't filled out with plain text anymore. The fields auto-complete with items that have existing Facebook pages or prompt the user to create them.

That means all this data is well-structured and ripe for new and incredibly rich mashups and applications. It's a big change from how things were this time last year. The API for user data available then—queries of the "user" FQL table—returns data as simple text strings. TheGraph API "user" object, on the other hand, returns an array of FB objects with IDs and other relevant meta-data.

But while all these exciting new development possibilities become available, other one get left behind. The new Facebook profile pages don't include the tabbed layout that allowed application developers to add custom content to a user's profile. That's a fairly significant change considering those custom tabs were a big part of where third-party Facebook development started off.

In 2007, less than a year after the first version of the Facebook API was released, Facebook announced the Facebook platform. That early version of Facebook's developer offering was heavily focused on building applicaitons that ran inside of Facebook. Finding new ways to decorate extra tabs, though it might seem mundane today, was a perfect example of that.

Now Facebook has backed away from that feature in favor of promoting development that leverages Facebook from the outside. Now, the official Facebook Platform Showcase page exclusively highlights applications and integrations based outside of Facebook's own site. For a network that has long been accused of being a "walled garden" and earlier last year saw a wide call by industry leaders for users to choose more open alternative instead, 2010 marked a lot of progress in a new direction.

Be sure to read the next Data article: 54 Data APIs: RapLeaf, Outside.in and Factual