The Null Device
Writing in the Pinboard blog, Maciej Ceglowski tears apart the concept "social graph", saying that it is neither social nor a graph, but a sort of pseudoscience invented by socially-challenged geeks and now peddled by hucksters out to monetise you and your relationships:
Last week Forbes even went to the extent of calling the social graph an exploitable resource comprarable to crude oil, with riches to those who figure out how to mine it and refine it. I think this is a fascinating metaphor. If the social graph is crude oil, doesn't that make our friends and colleagues the little animals that get crushed and buried underground?The first part of his argument has to do with the inadequacy of the "social graph" model for representing all the nuances of human social relationships in the real world; the many gradations of friendship and acquaintance, the ways relationships change and evolve, making a mockery of nailed-down static representations; the way that describing a relationship can change it in some cases, and various issues of privacy and multi-faceted identity, things which exist trivially in the real world, even if they're in violation of the Zuckerberg Doctrine.
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.
This obsession with modeling has led us into a social version of the Uncanny Valley, that weird phenomenon from computer graphics where the more faithfully you try to represent something human, the creepier it becomes. As the model becomes more expressive, we really start to notice the places where it fails.
You might almost think that the whole scheme had been cooked up by a bunch of hyperintelligent but hopelessly socially naive people, and you would not be wrong. Asking computer nerds to design social software is a little bit like hiring a Mormon bartender. Our industry abounds in people for whom social interaction has always been more of a puzzle to be reverse-engineered than a good time to be had, and the result is these vaguely Martian protocols.Of course, whilst the idea of the social graph may not be good for modelling real-life social interactions with naturalistic fidelity, it has been a boon for targeting advertising; the illusion of social fulfilment is enough to keep people clicking and volunteering information about themselves. From the advertisers' point of view, the fish not only jump right into the boat, they fillet themselves in mid-air and bring their own wedges of lemon:
Imagine the U.S. Census as conducted by direct marketers - that's the social graph. Social networks exist to sell you crap. The icky feeling you get when your friend starts to talk to you about Amway, or when you spot someone passing out business cards at a birthday party, is the entire driving force behind a site like Facebook.There is some good news, though: while general-purpose social web sites with the ambition of mediating (and monetising) the entirety of human social interaction may fail creepily as they approach their goal, special-purpose online communities can thrive in their niches:
The funny thing is, no one's really hiding the secret of how to make awesome online communities. Give people something cool to do and a way to talk to each other, moderate a little bit, and your job is done. Games like Eve Online or WoW have developed entire economies on top of what's basically a message board. MetaFilter, Reddit, LiveJournal and SA all started with a couple of buttons and a textfield and have produced some fascinating subcultures. And maybe the purest (!) example is 4chan, a Lord of the Flies community that invents all the stuff you end up sharing elsewhere: image macros, copypasta, rage comics, the lolrus. The data model for 4chan is three fields long - image, timestamp, text. Now tell me one bit of original culture that's ever come out of Facebook.I wonder whether there is a dichotomy there between sites and networks; would a special-interest site that used, say, Facebook's social graph as a means of identifying users (rather than having its own system of accounts, usernames, profiles, and optionally friendship/trust edges) be infected by the Zuckerbergian malaise?