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Facebook’s upcoming developer conference is a chance to explain what comes after Cambridge Analytica

For the first time, Facebook appears to be closing itself up. So what happens next?

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg
David Ramos / Getty

Facebook has impeccable timing.

That’s because the company — which is still trying to claw its way out of a massive hole after the world learned just how fast and loose it was with everybody’s personal data — has its annual developer conference, F8, next week in San Jose, Calif.

And while the social network’s conference highlights in recent years have been eye-popping — AR glasses! Helicopter drones! Mind-reading technology! — the bulk of the conference has historically been tailored toward back-end software and developers, many of whom have built major parts of their business or app on Facebook’s services, or with the help of Facebook data.

What makes this year different from any in Facebook’s history is that amid a massive privacy scandal, the company just spent the past six weeks clamping down on much of the data that these developers have come to rely on.

After it was learned that Facebook’s Login API allowed an outside research firm to buy the data of as many as 87 million users without their consent, Facebook scrambled to restrict the amount of data that outsiders can access. That included closing off one of Instagram’s older APIs entirely, months before the company had planned to, and without warning to developers who still used it. It also cut off third-party data partners it previously used for ad targeting.

Most of the changes came without any heads-up to developers. The F8 conference, then, is a chance for Facebook to explain what the heck happens next — to its developer partners and beyond.

When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke with Recode last month about the data scandal, he admitted that his original vision — a world where all apps and services included some kind of social layer (Facebook) — was actually misguided.

“Frankly, I just got that wrong,” he said. “I was maybe too idealistic on the side of data portability, that it would create more good experiences. And it created some, but I think what the clear feedback was from our community was that people value privacy a lot more. And they would rather have their data locked down and be sure that nothing bad will ever happen to it than be able to easily take it and have social experiences in other places.”

That mindset, though — to make everything more open and connected — has been relatively pervasive at Facebook since the beginning. It was even the company’s mission statement until early last year.

But now Facebook feels like it’s starting to close itself off for the first time. It’s the beginning of a correction.

Which is why, coincidentally, F8 is happening at the perfect time. Facebook is never short on press coverage or attention, but the conference gives the company a chance to explain exactly where Facebook stands long-term with the people who have come to rely on its services.

  • Does Facebook want to be an open platform? What does “open” mean from now on?
  • Are there more API changes coming?
  • Why should developers invest time and effort into using Facebook APIs if they can change without warning?

That last question in particular is key, because we’ve seen this play out before, just not necessarily with developers. Facebook has a history of changing the rules quickly and without warning — just ask any digital publisher who has ever relied on Facebook and its News Feed algorithm for referral traffic. Anyone reliant on Facebook’s services to succeed is at Facebook’s mercy. It’s a bad place to be.

The changes Facebook is making are ultimately good for Facebook users. There’s no need for the social network to share all of your information with another app or website, and it’s a positive thing that Facebook is promising to take user control and privacy more seriously. (Assuming it, ya know, actually takes user control and privacy more seriously.)

But Facebook is also not going to abandon developer relationships altogether — far from it. These developers provide a lot of data for Facebook, too. It’s clear that the company is taking a closer look at who has access to what, and next week is the perfect chance to set the record straight on where things go from here.

As BuzzFeed’s John Paczkowski wrote on Monday, “Instead of touting the next big thing, Facebook and Google might do well to focus on the current thing and solve the problems that they have so far failed miserably and repeatedly to address.”

We’ll find out next week how serious Facebook is about fixing what’s broke.

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