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The Real Social Graph Hasn’t Shown Itself Yet

Posted by Bob Warfield on November 21, 2007

There’s a great scene from Mission Impossible where Tom Cruise/Ethan Hunt says to government man Kitridge, “You’ve never seen me very upset.”  In the same vein, I don’t believe we have yet seen the Real Social Graph, although we certainly think we understand it.  The world is sniffing around the potential, but the full featured version has yet to be created let alone experienced.  Why do I say that?  Because to reach its full potential your Social Graph has to be connected to every aspect of your web experience.  It won’t do for it to be confined inside Facebook.  It won’t even do for it to be portable, so you can move it around between services.  We can’t get there simply by recreating the Social Graph inside every different service we use because the Social Graph is bigger than that and it changes too rapidly.  The copies would never stay in sync or be up to date. 

Think of the Social Graph as tracking your relationship status.  It changes constantly.  Perhaps not for your oldest, dearest friends, but for most relationships, there is change.  We’re moving closer to some people because our interests line up.  We’re moving further away from others because common interests are on the wane.  The interests themselves are constantly changing, and are cataloged in the context of the Social Graph.  See why I say you can’t manage this by copying data around?  Besides which, the essence of the web is leaving data in place and refering back to it.  Copying things around is so Old School.  The Real Social Graph can add value to virtually every web interaction we have, and it can increase it’s own power and reach by being aware of every interaction we have.  The Real Social Graph is not just data, its a living breathing thing that changes constantly based on inputs from it’s owner and the other people it represents relationships with.

Recently, there was another round of the “E-mail is dead” meme.  A silly business that, because at nearly the same time there was also a big round of posts about how much value can be derived from E-mail.  People say the e-mail networks are the biggest Social Graphs out there, that they’re not set up as networks per se, and that there is a limited window for them to get moving before other Social Networks take them over.  I say there’s a limited window for all these services:  Facebook, Twitter, E-Mail, and every other Social Thing out there on the web.  It all has to connect.  None of it is as “Social” as it could be.  And very very little of it is truly open.

We’ve seen a similar meme about blogging, and yet that is far from dead too.  Just ask WordPress which is growing like a forest fire out there.  The reality is that all of these services have differences, some subtle, some profound.  They all have value.  There is no one single universal form of web interaction that is appropriate for every kind of communication and collaboration with every kind of relationship you have with the vast plethora of individuals you interact with on the web and in your personal life.  Come to that, this isn’t even limited to the web.  Why shouldn’t it take in your telephone activities as well? 

Fred Wilson writes about how valuable it was for him to fire up Xobni to figure out who his 100 closest friends where based on who he sent the most e-mails to.  I’ve got news for Fred, that would be a start for me, but I’d be missing out if I didn’t look at the folks I call on my cell phone the most often.  I seldom send e-mail to my local relatives and closest friends, for example.  I call instead.  I’d be missing out even more if I thought my Social Network in Facebook would do it, or my network in LinkedIn added to that as well.  This is why I think Stowe Boyd will lose his bet that in 6 months everyone’s business contacts will move from LinkedIn to Facebook.  These things are siloed for a reason: we use them differently.  We want to keep them separate for many activities, but we need to be able to treat them all as one thing when it’s convenient.  If we could look across all of these media, perhaps with some sort of weighting, we could get a lot closer to the perfect invite list.

Let me say it again:

To reach its full potential your Social Graph has to be connected to every aspect of your web experience.

It has to collect data from everything you do on the Internet, and every application you use on the Internet.  Because it will be so intrusive, there is a good chance you may not want to delegate control of it to someone else’s cloud.  There are deep privacy issues at work here.  This is the penultimate Little Black Book in everyone’s life.  Dealing with those privacy issues will be very hard.  There needs to be a mechanism for you to delegate just a little bit, but not too much.  And there need to be real controls in place.  ZDNet writes about Facebook apps that ask for your userid and password so they can provide you access to some other service from within Facebook.  People do it, because they like the centralization.  But some of these apps use that information to do a lot more, like root around the other service in ways that are not illegal, but that you never authorized or considered.  In the article, Phil Windley wonders what happens when people give up passwords for things like their 401K account so they can monitor it while they’re in Facebook.  Danger!  Danger Will Robinson!

Your Social Graph may have to be centralized in some way on your own computer.  The web software world hates that idea, the Microsofties would love it, but it may not be a partisan issue so much as a personal asset that must be protected.  Failing that, it may have to be sharded.  Imagine a system like public key cryptography where you can freely distribute parts, but unless they have your key, the parts are useless.  Having a way of controlling the smarts of how these shards get combined and the keys plugged in will be difficult.  This will all be very new and will require much gnashing and moaning to work out fully.  We’re not even close to being able to declare a winner.  It could all get torn down and rebuilt very easily as new models come along that are closer to the ideal.  The ideal system needs to be capable of presenting a single identity to you the user while making it look to the outside world like as many individuals as you choose so that nobody can put together all the pieces of the treasure map.

If we think of the Social Graph as being fragmented into shards, the question arises of how we manipulate it.  There will be a desire to bring it all together, to create a single point of control for users.  Care must be exercised that this doesn’t result in a single point of control for monopolists.  Some sort of central dashboard will be desireable, but the current crop are not quite right either.  Facebook et al are much closer than email, because they are multimedia.  I can recieve messages and other notifications as well as see the news feed.  It seems to me that whatever the final evolution of all this turns out to be, one wants to have some sort of highly personalizable dashboard that has widgets that let you mashup from all the services you belong to whatever it is you want to get out of them.  Don’t take the dashboard as the one and only thing, it’s only a piece.  Stowe Boyd is right and Steve Rubel is wrong:  portals are not the final answer even if they are fine dashboards.

This has to be open.  I have to be able to get my email from my family web account, my email from my business account, my messages from Facebook, my Twitter messages, and all the rest.  While I’m at it, why can’t we finally get a unified inbox that includes my voicemail from all sources too?  This open central dashboard needs to be a jumping off point.  Richer interaction will be possible if I link through to more specialized services.  The dashboard can’t be the be-all end-all either, because it can never do everything.

There are tons of cultural issues at work here too.  The best mechanism to communicate with a particular person is going to be context, content, and recipient dependant.  The recipient will have their own preferences about how they want to be communicated with.  BTW, they need to be able to express that and you need to be able to respect it.  I may tell you to use Twitter for random drivel (“I had a Big Mac for lunch today and I actually liked it”), Facebook for Social Small Talk (“I just got an iPhone and I love it!”), LinkedIn for random business networking (“Does anyone know a good Ruby programmer?”), E-mail for Business Non-Urgent (“We need to meet about your new project, I have some ideas”), or Telephone for Urgent Personal and Business (you get the idea).  The system should be able to review your content and at least narrow the field.  Context is what else is going on both for you and the recipient.  For example, you two work together on a project your boss is urgently looking for an update on and that you’ve just written a message about.  Let’s also don’t forget the idea that different Learning Styles can color your Web preferences.

Summarizing where we are on this in terms of capabilities for the Future Social Graph and attendant software, I come up with:

  • Access to all Internet Interaction.
  • Privacy issues may mean Social Graph is only assembled completely locally.  Meanwhile, out in the Internet, services see only pieces of the puzzle doled out under the control of the owner based on what the owner thinks will be valuable and at the same time safe.
  • Users need to be able to personalize a dashboard using widgets of some kind.  This dashboard needs to let them drill down into the individual services for a much deeper experience.  The dashboard is only there to help them decide when drilldown is needed.
  • The mechanism used to communicate with your Social Graph is content, context, and recipient dependant.

This is a tall order.  See why I don’t think we’re even close to the Real Social Graph yet?  Most of what I’ve touched on here is scarcely even being talked about, let alone available to use.  These are not small issues.  They’re makers and breakers in the world of Silicon Valley Accidental Empires.  The irony is that to make it work, everyone has to quit making their view of it the center of the universe and reach out to all the others.

7 Responses to “The Real Social Graph Hasn’t Shown Itself Yet”

  1. shekyboy said


    Thanks for the detailed post on the issue. I agree with your assessment that the graph cannot live within a single service. It spans multiple services. Also no single service should be favored because it contains your graph. The social graph is the property of the user and must be under his/her control.

    Services such as Facebook, LinkedIn etc should be allowed access to this graph based on user’s permission. This will make it a level playing field for the Social service providers.

    Interestingly I wrote a detailed post on my blog few days back on this topic. Take a look and let me know what you think.

    I doodled up a quick graphic explaining the consolidated graph too.


  2. smoothspan said

    Pretty similar post, I agree Abhishek!

  3. filibertoselvas said

    Thanks for your post!

    Have you considered the possibility of a convergence of the VRM initiative with the “full potential” Social Graph you described here? I think there is an opportunity for a VRM like service/capability that allows us not only to manage and control our relationship with vendors but also with other humans or entities that group humans; this service/capability would control, track and allow access to our social graph to those humans or entities as we deem appropriate and also gather data out of that interaction that in turns changes/updates the social graph again. I wrote more on that here: and would love to hear your thoughts on it.

    Filiberto Selvas

  4. smoothspan said

    Filiberto, its certainly possible VRM will lead the way. If nothing else, business will be much more careful about the Trust Fabric it adopts. I’m just not sure business won’t lose the rest of the flavors needed for a successful consumer social graph.

    This feels to me like something that’s still out there quite a ways and nothing on the tip of being released.



  5. azangvil said

    Bob, Abhishek, others,

    Assuming the target is “end-user control of their own full social graph”. Here’s a quick attempt to look at the barriers:

    1. From the infrastructure perspective:

    Identity/profile needs to defacto standardize, and a mechanism for describing relationships needs to be established (i.e. VRM). The simple scenario is: my profile is readable by the multiple services I use, and I can determine the conditions under which my data is made available to these services. There are numerous technical challenges here including where/how data is kept/updated and how to describe the data and the relationships completely/extensibility/etc…

    However, the real difficulty of course is to get some defacto standard to actually reach critical mass.

    2. From the end-user perspective:

    We are used to a situation where data representing our activities is owned by those that enable those activities. Example: If facebook is where I connect to someone, the connection between me and that someone is owned by FB. We’ll need to think differently and agree to participate in activities only if we are allowed to own the underlying relationships of those activities.

    In other words, I will only sign up with services that are XXX-compliant, thereby giving me control of how my social graph is used.

    3. From the social-network perspective:

    As long as a social network is a single entity that consists of both the users and the activities/content/applications, there is little incentive for that entity to give up ownership of end-users. However, if standards for applications emerge (OpenSocial), the application owners have strong incentive for their application to work across network boundaries.

    Based on this primitive analysis, if application standards emerge successfully, the application owners and end-users may be able to force a change so that applications are no longer tied to a specific network, and the social graph is sharable (i.e. controlled by the user). Will this happen? Is this a realistic step towards owning our social graph? What are the first apps that have a chance to break free of a specific network? Any thought will be appreciated.

    — Arnon

  6. shekyboy said


    Great thoughts. Here are my comments:

    However, the real difficulty of course is to get some defacto standard to actually reach critical mass.

    Yes I agree. It will be very difficult to establish something like that.

    Example: If facebook is where I connect to someone, the connection between me and that someone is owned by FB.

    Unfortunately this is the case today. This does not apply in the real world. For example if I meet someone at a coffee shop, the shop does not control that relationship.

    I agree that this data should clearly be owned by the user and more over be extremely portable.

    As long as a social network is a single entity that consists of both the users and the activities/content/applications, there is little incentive for that entity to give up ownership of end-users. However, if standards for applications emerge (OpenSocial), the application owners have strong incentive for their application to work across network boundaries.

    Yes the networks have no intentions of doing this. I believe the “locking in” of the graph is probably their killer app. I agree with Chris Anderson when he says that Social Networking is a feature not a service.

    Will this happen? Is this a realistic step towards owning our social graph? What are the first apps that have a chance to break free of a specific network? Any thought will be appreciated.

    This is a very hard problem to crack. Multiple non profit entities are trying to get on this issue. is the latest. Read Dave Winer’s post talking about this.

    Even if one has a consolidated service, the question comes down to the fact as who would operate it. The govt?

    With respect to apps, I think initiatives like OpenSocial will help them. However until the point the graph becomes portable, we wont get the best experience



  7. […] A couple of things should be coming clearer now.  First, I hope you can see why many of us (and now TBL), recognize the term “Social Graph” as being separate from “Social Network.”  The Social Graph can be so much more than a particular web site focused on Social Networking.  It can literally impact every aspect of your web experience.  And it is a collection of data that is at once both very open and very private and personal.  There are pieces we want everyone to see, and pieces we want to keep entirely to ourselves.  It is a very tangled web we are weaving.  It grows and morphs constantly.  We would like to start building it once and never start over.  This is why I’ve said the Real Social Graph Hasn’t Shown Itself Yet. […]

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