Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Social Graph is a Series of Tubes

Okay, this one is a bit of a stream of consciousness, so bear with me.

So I was reading this, a rant on why the Social Graph is something of a misnomer, and it stirred up some thoughts that I've been mulling for the past year or so. Note that I don't actually agree with several things the article had to say, but that's a post for another time; instead I'll respond to some specific points that were made and the train of thought those kicked off.

"In order to model something as a graph, you have to have a clear definition of what its nodes and edges represent. In most social sites, this does not pose a problem. The nodes are users, while edges means something like 'accepted a connection request from', or 'followed', or 'exchanged email with', depending on where you are.

The way you interpret this is another matter - does clicking 'follow' imply you're friends with someone in real life?"

There's a few points in the article where the author questions the nature of the arcs or links in the social graph, and what those represent - sadly missing the equally complex discussion of what a node represents, and how this relates to issues of personal identity online and the many fa├žades we use - and while the discussion oversimplifies somewhat, the point is generally sound: the links between people cannot be simplified to or interpreted as Is Friend/Is Not Friend (or some variant thereon) and they are intrinsically dynamic (indeed, it is a lack of activity that can cause the greatest change in interpersonal relationships). A point that the author skirts but fails to deliver specifically is that the Social Graph as espoused by, for example, Facebook, deliberately (and vocally) misinterprets the links that its users create and destroy. When I "friend" someone, it's because I want to see the information they're sharing; I want to follow them. When I "unfriend" someone, it's not usually because I'm no longer friends with them - there's plenty of people linked to my Facebook account with whom I have no interaction at all - it's because I'm tired of listening to their shit. The status updates you've been posting for the past few weeks are actually really offensive, and I don't want to hear them any more; it's just a difference of opinion, and I'm not going to stop being your "real life" friend because we disagree on something, but I don't want to subscribe to your thoughts on the matter. You only use Twitter to play Echo Bazaar; there's nothing wrong with that and we're still friends, but there's no signal and all noise in your feed. We've broken up, and whilst we've resolved to stay friends, I don't especially want to see the pictures of your annoyingly handsome new boyfriend.

Changing the links between myself and the people I "follow", "friend" or otherwise is, to me, not a matter of keeping my data up-to-date in the same way as changing my relationship status, my address or my profile picture, it's about changing my experience of the service. I'm not expressing the status quo, I'm not describing the actual Social Graph (which is definitely an actual thing, even if we've not found it yet) I'm building a dataflow network. Google+ has started to grasp this with the Circles mechanism, allowing me to distinguish between the people I trust to see my information (friends), the people with something interesting to say (followees), and the overlaps between them. But I contest the article's implicit assertion that the links in the Social Graph (as present in social networks) are nouns, "friend of", "lover of", "enemy of", "employer of"; instead, I say they are actions, verbs. My links say things like "trust", "follow", "ignore", "inform". I'm telling the social network to do something, I'm building a set of pipes through which I can broadcast, send, receive & transform data.

Maybe what I'm trying to say is that the Social Graph is not the data, it's the medium. A friendship, a relationship, an emnity, these are not tags or metadata, they're processes, they're impellers, they're agents of change and movement.
Is that the difference between Amazon Recommendations/Google Ad-Targeting and viral marketing? Because the former uses the Social Graph as data, churns it through an engine and tries to drive itself along those lines, while the latter lets the natural forces of human society carry the message?

"One big sticking point is privacy. Do I really want to find out that my pastor and I share the same dominatrix? If not, then who is going to be in charge of maintaining all the access control lists for every node and edge so that some information is not shared? You can either have a decentralized, communally owned social graph (like Fitzpatrick envisioned) or good privacy controls, but not the two together."

Yes. And also, no. But mainly, sort of.

The present system of social networks lumps all the data in one, big central pile; there's a service out there, somewhere, on the net to which you send all your private details. This service is also the identity authority; you get a username and password to identify yourself, but it's up to Facebook, Twitter or whoever to decide if you are who you say you are. As an identity, you then ask the central service to allow or deny other identities access to your data. It's an entire world in a box, massively centralised and under the absolute authoritarian control of the service. This means the privacy policy of that particular service can be absolutely enforced, but it does mean sending all your private data to Mark Zuckerberg.

I'm loathe to comment overmuch about the author's apparent assumptions around privacy and control in the Semantic Web alternative; I need to read the essay by Fitzpatrick in more detail (though at first glance it seems to explicitly leave the topic of private data as an known requirement to be resolved in future) and the article provides no justification for the statements quoted above. But I do believe that a better standard of privacy and control can be achieved if the responsibility for managing data and identities is transferred to (and made practical for) users. I still believe that as Web2.0 features user-generated content, Web3.0 will feature user-published content; just as content generation has decentralised, so will content publishing; that we will all be our own YouTubes, Facebooks et cetera.

Okay, I've got to go do something social, so I'll be back in a bit to finish of this post with the actual endpoint of my train of thought; but in the meantime, here's a list of the all functionality I could think of that a social network would need to provide:

  • A Feed: I want to share a stream of short statuses/tweets, links to articles, videos, et cetera. I also want to reshare things that have been shared with me.
  • Content hosting: I've generated some of the content that I'm sharing, and I need to host it. Further, the act of sharing content is content in and of itself.
  • Data sharing: I want to share information about myself. That may be my age, address, relationship status, or my dating proclivities, or where I am in the world, or my CV, or whatever. In a sense, this is just another form of content, but it's a specific format of content to which social networks cater.
  • Identity: I need my content to be identifiable and attributable as mine. If someone re-shares my content, I want my identity to stay attached to it. Note that identity does not implicitly equate to me as a person; I may have several online identities, or an identity may belong to several people (like a company or brand).
  • Privacy: I need to control who gets to see what content, and - so far as possible - the period of time for which they have that access. My friends get to see all my personal data, but a potential employer can see my contact details and CV for a few weeks after I submit a job application. That control should not be affected by the channels on which I share content; especially, it should not be affected by who chooses to reshare it.

Anything I've missed?

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