Thursday, January 10, 2008

The "open" social graph on the horizon

The Data Portability Workgroup (DPW) announced today that Google, Plaxo -- and the big surprise -- Facebook, will be participating in discussion on how users can "access their friends and media across all the applications, social networking sites and widgets that implement the design into their systems."

This couldn't have come at a more perfect time, especially given the flap over Robert Scoble scraping Facebook (and note that he's also a part of the DPW).

A typical day for me includes dozens of email notifications from each of the following services: new "friends" on Facebook, "followers" on Twitter, "connections" on LinkedIn, "business connections" on Plaxo, and the latest that has put me over the edge, "trust contacts" on Spock. Social networking fatigue has finally hit me.

That's five services where my business connections find me. Five services that all require me to navigate from the email to their respective Web sites and confirm the relationship. And it's four services too many.

The reality is I have one social graph, and up to now, it's been pretty content hanging out, in its limited fashion, on LinkedIn. Even with the advent of Facebook, it's been pretty manageable. But the new reality is that business social networking has finally caught on, and the proliferation of niche "social networks" means that these five social networks will likely grow to 10, 20, who knows how many. And the worst part about it is I don't have the time, energy, or patience to manage all of these relationships, yet I know it's crucial.

This is insanity.

Here's an example. Josh Bernoff and I are friends, connected, etc. on virtually every social network. I should be able to state in one place that we are co-authors, and it would be replicated everywhere else. It doesn't matter where I state it, but once I say it, please please please don't make me say it again again and again. And please don't make me have to invite Josh each time we, or our extended networks, join a new service.

And the way to solve it is to give me back control over my social graph. If 2007 was the year of the open social application platform, then 2008, I believe, will be the year of the "open" social graph. There' s a reason why I put parentheses around "open" because it's a pretty loaded word. I don't think MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, et. al. will make their respective walled garden social graphs freely available for people to use outside of their own sites. But if they are smart, they will make it much, much easier for their members to leverage their expressed social graphs.

And that's the reason why I think Facebook has joined the Data Portability Workgroup. By joining the workgroup, they haven't committed themselves to opening up their social graph. I admit, this is a potentially a pipe dream because anyone who is in the position of power -- like MySpace, Facebook, or LinkedIn -- have little incentive to open up their social graph vaults for start-ups to exploit. But Facebook et. al. are smart, and know that unless they participate, they can't influence the outcome to of the open social graph to their benefit.

But I think there are players missing from the table -- communication portals, Yahoo!, Microsoft. and AOL, as well mobile service providers. This is because they own a substantial piece of the social graph as expressed nominally through emails, address books, instant messaging buddy lists, and SMS activities.

I wrote about this waaaay back in July 2004 in my first social networking piece for Forrester. This is what I wrote, and the accompanying graphic:

Users map their relationships with other people, either by personally inviting those individuals into the network, as with Friendster or LinkedIn, or by using software like Spoke Software to scan emails and instant messaging (IM). In the future, social networking software will also work with mobile carriers — eager to retain and monetize users — by importing call detail records to track the frequency and length of calls between social network members.

Relationship Mapping Will Tap Into Technologies To Make Maintenance Easy

Circles

From "Profiles: The Real Value Of Social Networks", July 15, 2004.

The idea is we already have social graphs that are expressed in the activities that we do every day -- the emails we send, calls we make, and meetings we have.

Facebook Beacon was an attempt at this, at least in the online sphere. And it shows how ladden this space is with privacy and transparency issues. That's going to be a core piece of the work ahead of the DPW, trying to figure out who has control over what, when, and how it can be monetized. At the core HAS to be user control and privacy, but up for debate is who ultimately "owns" the social data that's created, either explicitly or implicitly through our actions.

Now it's your turn -- let's get specific about what the open social graph means to us, and how we as users want to see it develop. After all, it's *your* social graph -- let's make sure that we have a seat at the negotiating table as well. Comment below, or email me your thoughts.

by Charlene Li

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