Monday, November 12, 2007

The Social Graph: Is it what me, myself and I want?

Forrester’s Jeremiah Owyang offers this executive summary today to help define terms for men in suits as the buzz around The Social Graph becomes a clamour.

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.”

Which is simple enough. But is the idea of the Social Graph anything new and/or useful? And can it really be this simple?

I’ve got three problems I hope you’ll help with:

  1. What does The Social Graph add to what we can already discern from Reed’s Law (Group Forming Network Theory)
  2. If the Social Graph is about mapping the individual within networks, is this single ID approach all positive?
  3. Finally, is what Jeremiah and many others describe actually Social Graph Lite?

Reed’s Law describes the exponential growth of value potential in networks – based on each node’s ability to move between groups, operate within multiple groups and choose which groups they wish to belong to.

The Social Graph maps the individual within those networks.

If we accept that multiple connections in multiple groups require your node to exhibit characteristics (it is these which enable the connections – ie shared interests/passions) then it is these characteristics that are the true enablers of the network.

So the social graph is inherent in Reed’s Law.

In other words; without a node sharing its characteristics in some form the network cannot be sustained and certainly won’t grow. If you know nothing about me why would you connect? (you could, of course, but you would be spam).

So Reed’s Law cannot function without shared characteristics. The Social Graph is simply the way those characteristics can be described.

Its benefit is that It’s a way in which we can define and describe the demand for a digital identity utility which carries a key to all your relationships with it.

As Jeremiah puts it: “centralising a users Social Graph on a trusted, third party area that can be a central place where relationships are updated, and then replicated to every social networking website using a common process and technology.”

That means it’s about making the potential for value growth in networks described by Reed’s Law closer to actual value. That's because the bits in networks that create value are those which connect with purpose. If you give me a way in which its easier for those connections with purpose to form, you're going to create more value.

And this is where I have to ask, is this single ID approach all positive?

I get the efficiencies: time saving, completeness of picture – and potentially the better ability to serve as a result. But…

But it’s not always what we want. There is value in allowing the same node to have multiple identities. It’s an idea I explore in detail in this paper (Reed’s Law and How Multiple Identities Make the Long Tail Just a Little Bit Longer). And I’m speaking about it at the Digital Identity Forum at the Clink, London on November 21, 2007.

In a nutshell: I think differently when I act differently. And acting differently is influenced by which facet of identity is deployed, depending on the social mores of the community I am interacting with.

When I think differently I contribute new value to the network.

So the charge towards a one-hit social graph may have a negative impact on the value created by networks. Whether the creation of value emerging from multiple identities is greater than that created by more efficient sharing of my characteristics remains to be seen. It’s a calculation that may have critical importance as the network evolves.

The ideal of course would be to deploy a fluid social graph which serves multi-faceted individual nodes, allowing me to choose which of my multiple IDs is revealed to each community.

It’s going to be a complex beast – particularly if you accept that “I am part of a community, therefore I am”. That is: your ID is created by those around you.

So there has to be a constant feedback to your central social graph, and it has to work out which of these updates is relevant to which other of your facets. And you have to be able to rate the accuracy of those updates – and you may want to switch off vast swathes of characteristics for displaying in one community compared to another. And all this may eat into the better-serving efficiencies we must hope the Social Graph creates.

And if you think all that is a bit complicated, consider this: The idea of the Social Graph emerges from the ‘six-degrees-of-separation’ work of Jeffrey Travers of Harvard University and Stanley Milgram of the City University of New York.

It inspired mathematicians’ Watts and Strogatz to model connections which resulted in some pretty pictures and some scary maths. So when you take a look here you may conclude that what we’re looking at in the concept of the Social Graph emerging in social network thinking today is a bit of a watered down version. And if anyone can explain how that maths is currently being deployed in the development of social networks, please contribute by commenting!

All thoughts very welcome. It feels like there are some tough nuts to crack here so the more minds, the better!

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The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?