Perspective on the Social Graph

Michael O'Neil

These days, the buzz in social media -- at least, the buzz that doesn't concern Facebook's invasion of its members' privacy -- is all about the Social Graph. Frankly, the notion of a Social Graph leaves me cold. It seems like one of those concepts that would have been well served by a longer gestation period, and a better name. But with everyone from Tim Berners-Lee to the Facebookies proclaiming it the Next Big Thing, I guess it's become an inevitable feature of the social media landscape. So, in the spirit of "if you can't ignore them, try to understand them," I thought I'd assemble a few of the better perspectives available on the Web.


Often, the best place to start is at the beginning. But as is often the case, the roots of the term are somewhat obscure. As reported in many places, including this article from the Economist, the current popularity of the term can be traced by a presentation by Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. However, I'm avoiding Facebook-related commentary for the moment, so let me skip to the blog posting that is generally considered to be at the heart of the Social Graph discussion -- the one entitled "Thoughts on the Social Graph" by Brad Fitzpatrick. In it, he lays out an argument in favour of an open interface connecting the "walled gardens" of the various sites containing social information: He lists Facebook, MySpace, LiveJournal, Digg, Twitter, Zooomr, Pownce, Friendster, and Plaxo (and interestingly, not LinkedIn -- thus far, this appears to be largely a consumer-oriented phenomenon).


A second post, by Alex Iskold, builds on Fitzpatrick's (largely technical) thoughts. In "Social Graph: Concepts and Issues," Iskold adds context to the discussion, and begins examining the privacy and ownership issues that will inevitably shape the direction and success of Social Graph-related activity. Both of these posts, and related discussions, are referenced in Jeremiah Owyang's excellent post entitled "Explaining what the Social Graph is to your Executives." At the top of the post, Owyang says, "In respecting your time, I've boiled down the entire post to seventy words." Those words are: "The Social Graph is the representation of our relationships. Today, these graphs define our personal, family, or business communities on social websites. Unfortunately, we're duplicating our same Social Graph on multiple websites, resulting in inaccurate data and time spent managing it. Despite many challenges, our Social Graphs should be self-managed from a single trusted source, replicated to websites of our choosing, thus resulting in accurate, efficient, relationship management."


The concept has subsequently attracted attention from many of the most influential voices on the Web. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, weighed in with a post that is almost embarrassing in its lack of substance and focus. Nicholas Carr (familiar to IT in Canada readers as both the author of "IT Doesn't Matter," and as the subject of an interview contained in the Skills and Education forum), commented on Sir Tim's remarks in his post, "Is the social graph Web 3.0?" The comments attached to Nick's post are at least as interesting as the post itself; one links to a thoughtful post on the three types of members included in a social network -- the "densely connected core" members, the "loosely connected fragments" in the center, and the "disconnected nodes," or "lurkers," at the periphery of the network.


So -- what is the prospect that this will evolve from an online debate between bloggers to a viable commercial concept? There doesn't seem to be a lot of consensus as to when, how, or whether this will be achieved. Jeremiah Owyang has a post that contains highlights from a debate on this subject in which he was joined by John McCrae of Plaxo, Salim Ishmail of Yahoo's Brickhouse, and Internet media phenomenon Om Malik. The posting includes comments, which may expand the debate over time. At the end of this last post, Owyang includes the reaction from participants in the conversation to the question "can the social graph be monetized?" The results as reported in the blog were:


Users must engage with social graph first/ monetization comes later (3) Brands will benefit by 'pullling' social graphs (communities) to their site (2) Over advertising will kill it (2) Embed in Value now (1) Advertising (but must be honest) can work (1) It can't be monetized (2)


Based on what I've seen in my time running IT in Canada, I think that the intent, at least, is a little outside of any of these ideas (though to be candid, I'm not quite sure what "embed in value now" means). I think the hope is that advertisers can participate in communities by underwriting discussions that are important to the community, and by doing so, obtain an "authentic voice" in discussions that will take place, in one form or another, with or without them. In fact, if I were asked to sum up the current search for value on the Web in one word, that word would be "authenticity." Many firms looking to engage in social media as a supplement to traditional one-way messaging are trying to build artificial portals into social networks -- which is what I think is meant by "pulling social graphs to their site." This approach will ultimately fail. Advertisers will need to work with and through trusted third parties to set up conversations -- look for authentication from the participants -- and recognize that unlike in current advertising models, this debate will not allow itself to be scripted. In one form or another, the Social Graph will have to make room for both interpersonal and commercial connections. The extent to which it does so in a manner that is seen as valuable and authentic from both perspectives will determine whether this is indeed "Web 3.0," or just another awkward buzzword.


Initially posted by Michael O'Neil on IT in Canada. Reposted via agreement with IT in Canada.

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Dec 12, 2007 6:28 AM Barbara Barbara  says:
Thanks for this thoughtful explanation -- great capsule of the evolution of this concept.For me, the "social graph" seems to have the most potential within the predicted transition from marketing based on traditional demographics to marketing based on "personas". Eg, if Facebook ran analytics on its members social graphs -- and provided that data to aggregrators who could build models across multiple social nets -- there would be some true value for online marketers. The value would be the data, rather than eyeballs or actions. I can see where audited analysis of social graphs could supplement traditional audited audience composition reports in media kits and the membership stats so often used by Internet companies (number of users, downloads, etc.).I would be disappointed to see the social graph idea lead to a new form of intermediary -- one who provides central repository / tools / services for people participating in multiple social nets. The social network companies could eliminate such issues simply by cooperating on standard interfaces and procedures. Reply
Dec 13, 2007 8:43 AM Alex Iskold Alex Iskold  says:
I totally agree that advertising is going to kill it. I also think that graphs are not accurate today, they are not based on the real behavioral patterns. Reply
Dec 13, 2007 12:52 PM Michael_ONeil Michael_ONeil  says:
Barbara, thanks for this! The standard interface approach is really the focus of what Brad Fitzpatrick talks about in his blog ( agree, this is the best way for the Social Graph to develop. However, any ecosystem of this sort ultimately needs to be driven by one of the key players in the process - and with the possible exception of the Open Social folks, it's hard to envision any of them being forceful in demanding a solution that doesn't leave the prospect of a (potentially powerful and valuable) intermediary playing a role here... Reply
Dec 18, 2007 10:19 AM Michael_ONeil Michael_ONeil  says:
That's an interesting comment, Alex! In what areas do you think the current graphs fail to depict real behavior? And how do you think they can/should be improved? Reply

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