Exposing the social graph

By Nick Holmes on February 8, 2008
Comments Off on Exposing the social graph
Filed under Privacy, Semantic web, Social media

With the launch last week of Google’s Social Graph API we can finally start to visualise the “social graph” – the connections between people on the web.

It is only relatively recently that the relationships between people have been declared explicitly on the web – on social networking sites and publicly via open standards such as XFN (which expresses relationships via tags in web links) and FOAF (a detailed personal profile file format).

Google, whose mission is “to organize the world’s information”, has been doing just that with this social information – indexing XFN links and relationships in FOAF files and “other publicly declared” connections. Having “mapped” the social graph, it is making it available via its API so that others can tap into it.

Lead software engineer behind this is Brad Fitzpatrick, creator of LiveJournal and later chief architect at Six Apart, who moved to Google at the end of last year.

Without more ado, take a look at how Brad is connected on the social graph.

The implications are both exciting and scary. Google is not the only intelligent agent able to extract and process this open information, but it is the most powerful. It is not creating or controlling this information – we are – but it is exposing it. As of today our exposure is limited, but very quickly our lives will be further exposed in unforeseen ways as Google itself and other developers combine the graph data with other available data about us and exploit it for both good and bad.

David Recordon of Six Apart has concerns about these ugly surprises:

The fact that much of this data could theoretically be discovered anyway isn’t the point. Just as much of the information in Facebook’s News Feed could have been discovered anyway, the fact that these relationships are being moved from “possible to find” to “easy to discover” means that we should be thinking of how this affects social behaviors in this new context. And the truth is, we don’t know the right answer.

as does Marshall Kirkpatrick on ReadWriteWeb:

As much as I want the data to be flowing and free – it’s not an abstract loss of potential profit from no longer falsely scarce digital content that’s at issue when it comes to social connections – as it is with other types of published web content. It’s a matter of free will and sometimes personal safety. Web users should not be asked to give these things up in exchange for participation in all that the internet is making possible. It doesn’t have to be that way and so it shouldn’t be.

So that’s the scary side. The exciting side is that open standards such as FOAF can be used to describe not only the relationships between people, but also their relationships with organisations, documents (in the widest sense) and more. Intelligent processing of this user-maintained data will create the semantic web – the web of meaning.