Last week, Facebook began testing new features you may spot within the Facebook iPhone app. They’re called context cards (unofficially), and whenever you check in to a place a la Foursquare, or mention that you’re reading a certain book, these white cards being tested with some users might pop up in your News Feed to tell you what your friends think about your taste in restaurant or the way that book ended.
How is this possible? Context cards dig through a backlog of everything your friends have done, cross referencing all of that stuff with whatever you’re doing right now. Context cards are essentially recreating that moment when you have a conversation with friends–you tell them you’re going to Cape Cod for a wedding, maybe–and they say, “Oh, I was just there last year!”
Facebook’s context cards offer a sneak peek into Facebook’s five-year plan. In the future, context cards could quite literally answer your questions, Facebook senior engineer Mike Vernal–who leads Utility–told Co.Design. If you asked for a recommendation for a new car, context cards might have an answer (maybe from something your friends once posted, or maybe by linking to another resource–an ad we wonder?–that has an answer).
“One of the key ways that we design Facebook is by looking at the way people use the product–emerging behaviors in the product–and trying to better craft the product to serve those use cases,” Vernal explains. “One of the things we see all the time on Facebook is people asking each other questions. ‘I’m going to go to Portland for the weekend. What should I do when I’m there?’ And so we see this behavior within the system, and one of the key things we’re trying to do is figure out better ways to serve that, to ask questions of your friends and find those answers.”
But it’s notable that this “ask” is automatic (you might say you’re reading a book, but that doesn’t mean you want to know what your friends thought about it). And it’s also notable that the Context Card–our “answer”–is offered before we necessarily ask a question! Facebook is using Context Cards to anticipate our needs and automate the fulfillment of them. In this sense, it’s a technology reminiscent of Google Now–Google’s context-based auto-search engine that also pops up white cards with tidbits of information it thinks you’ll be interested in–though Google looks at your search history and location habits to make its recommendations, rather than the collective wisdom of your Facebook friends.
In this sense, both companies aren’t just attempting to have an answer waiting before we ask it; they’re leveraging what they know about us to become relevant in our lives beyond our screens.
“We’re focused on making Facebook a place you go to answer questions, to make better decisions, and to get a better understanding of the real world around you,” Vernal explains. “That’s really the five-year vision, making Facebook a place you go to understand the real world around you.”
[Hat tip: Mashable]
[Correction: An original version of this article didn’t specify that context cards are not an official name for the tool. Vernal’s title has also been amended to head of Utility.]