Ben Laurie blathering

Be Careful With The Social Graph

Bob Blakley is concerned that if we open up the social graph, then we’ll kill social networking (if I were you I’d skip the rather complicated and irrelevant analogy he kicks off with: to mangle my friend Jennifer Granick’s oft-given advice, we should talk about the thing itself and not what it is like). His core point is that its not OK for Scoble to move his relationship data from one system to another because he doesn’t own that data – it is jointly owned by him and those with whom he has relationships.

Whilst I agree that it may not be OK to move such data around, I think Bob is wrong about the details. Plus he picked a terrible example: it hardly matters what Scoble did with his friends list because anyone can already see it.

And this precisely illustrates what seems most important to me: when I share social data, I do so under certain conditions, both explicit and implict. What I care about, really, is that those conditions continue to be met. I don’t really mind who does the enforcing, so long as it is enforced. So, it seems to me that its OK to create the social graph, you just have to be exceedingly careful what you do with it.

This presents two, in my view, enormous technical challenges. The first is dealing with a variety of different conditions applying to different parts of the graph. Even representing what those conditions are in any usable way is a huge task but then you also need to figure out how to combine them, both when multiple conditions apply to the same piece of data (for example, because you figured it out twice in different ways) or when the combination of various pieces of data, each with its own conditions, yield something new.

Once you’ve done that you are faced with a much larger problem: working out what the implicit conditions were and enforcing those, too. The huge adverse reaction we saw to Facebook’s Beacon feature shows that such implicit conditions can be unobvious.

Anyway, the bottom line is that those in favour of the social graph tend to see it as some nodes, representing people, and edges, representing relationships. What they ignore is the vast cloud of intertwined agreements and understandings woven around all those edges and nodes. But those are absolutely vital to the social graph. Without them, as Bob says

Opening the social graph will destroy social networks, and turn them into sterile public spaces in which formation of meaningful and intimate relationships is not possible.

So, by all means, open the social graph but do it really carefully.

One thing I’ll note in passing: it is very common, in human relationships, to reveal far more than you are supposed to – under condition that the recipient of the revelation maintains absolute secrecy about it. For example, everyone knows that Alice is bonking Bob except Alice’s husband and Bob’s wife. This is because a series of “absolute secrecy” conditions and careful thought have neatly partitioned the world with respect to this piece of information. Usually. Should a good social graph emulate this?


  1. Surely Mr Alice and Mrs Bob don’t know not so much because of a condition of secrecy, it’s because no-one wants to get shot by either of them them as the messenger who delivers the bad news.

    Is there an equivalent of being shot in social networking?

    If there were, you’d have something that behaved more like real life.

    Comment by Peter Laurie — 14 Jan 2008 @ 9:13

  2. [...] written before about the risks involved in exposing the social graph. Now there’s a nice video [...]

    Pingback by Links » Mining Is Easy — 28 Mar 2009 @ 13:33

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