The Null Device

The social graph and the Mormon bartender

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?

There are 2 comments on "The social graph and the Mormon bartender":

Posted by: Greg Sat Nov 12 14:24:14 2011

This is great. I've come to a conclusion recently which is similar but different. I think if you like at the evolution of social network sites you notice an interesting thing. Early efforts like SixDegrees.com (1997) and FOAF (2000) were quite different to Facebook and Myspace. They grew out of ideas comoing from social network research and were designed to represent a social graph.

People (like this author) still think of SNS as being mainly about the social graph. But my argument is that the recent history of Facebook is all about moving beyond the social graph. You see this in the constant bending of the privacy controls, the provision of "email to anyone", the fan pages that can be seen by anyone, and so on.

Posted by: Greg Sat Nov 12 14:31:36 2011

The problem is that the social graph by itself isn't very useful or interesting - and for that reason those early sites (and FOAF) weren't very successful. What people really want is a communication tool, a directory of people (with reliable identity), the ability to interact with entities with whom they have no real connection (such as businesses and media stars), and the ability to create an online profile (see especially the new timeline, which is effectively resurrecting the mid-90s idea of the 'personal home page' that almost nobody was ever able to create).

So my idea is that at some point Zuck has realized that what he is selling, and what people want, is not at all an online social graph, and he's turning FB into something quite different to that. But he's doing it slowly and by stealth. Maybe this is because too many people still think they want a social graph. Or maybe because it is essential to still use the graph to organize what FB is becoming, and the limit of how far to bury it is unclear.

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