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Facebook and Google anounce that they are joining the Data Portability Workgroup, a body advocating open standards allowing users of social web sites to easily move their data from one site to another. (This is not long after Facebook suspended Robert Scoble's account for attempting to, well, port his data from their site.) More interesting is who's Google's representative in this organisation: none other than Brad Fitzpatrick, founder of LiveJournal and one of the originators of OpenID, who more recently has turned his attention to the social graph problem.
Danah Boyd's critique of Friendster and similar social software, delivered as a presentation at the recent O'Reilly digeratifest, seems quite interesting:
Friends on these sites are not close ties. In fact, they're barely weak ties! I'll explain why in a moment. Thus, anything that can be assumed about transitivity across ties is 100% lost. This only gets worse as we go down the chain. As one of my informants reminded me, why would i want to date my hairdresser's brother's drug dealer's second-cousin?
The reason that this became quickly apparent for people is because they usually signed on with one group of friends. On Friendster, it was most clearly demonstrated by the Burning Man crowd. If your Burner friends joined, you signed up and created a Burner profile. This didn't mean that you were only a Burner, but it was the image appropriate to your group of friends. You dress and act differently amongst Burner friends than you do amongst colleagues. Then the colleagues appeared. Do you shift your profile to look like them? Do you find a middle ground? Doesn't matter, really... Because your colleagues can see that all of your friends are Burners. Guilt by association.
Take this a step further. They expose the PEOPLE from each facet to each other with us as the only bridge. If the focus of our interactions between two groups were similar, we would comfortably expose them over time. If you find out that your colleague likes jazz, you might take him with you to meet your jazz-going friends. But if he hates jazz, you probably won't think to introduce him to the jazz aficionados. On Friendster, your ability to connect people because of their similarities is lost. The only similarity that matters is you. Furthermore, they get to interact through the system without you even negotiating whether or not they should meet. All of a sudden, your drunken friends are asking your boss out on a date cause she's hot. Yikes! Not only does this disempower you, remove the ability for you to connect them as need be, but it now makes you have to deal with the consequences of two different groups with two different standards of social norms.
(via bOING bOING)
Someone has written a program for spidering Friendster and rendering a graph of the social network (downloadable, Windows-only).
Sounds interesting in theory, though in practice it depends on how many people have signed up. When I played around with Friendster, my network was very sparse, with few people being bothered to sign up and hassle their friends into doing so. It wasn't that nobody would be my friend. I had plenty of those; just that very few of them bothered to actually add any other friends (or fill in more than the bare minimum of details about themselves). Mind you, the fact that Friendster is all but useless except for finding sexual partners sort of limits its audience; perhaps in Australia, using computers for getting laid is still seen as the last refuge of sad losers, rather than the playground of cutting-edge cyber-nerverts.
tribe.net would be somewhat more interesting to graph, as it's a multi-use system (useful for posting announcements, selling stuff, shooting the bull about your favourite TV show/band/sports team and meeting people), thus giving denser social networks. LiveJournal would probably yield even more densely interconnected networks; also, since LJ has an open API, it shouldn't be too hard to rig up something to spider it and plot a graph, possibly even correlated with a physical map of the real world. I wonder whether anyone has thought of this already.
FOAF is a way of specifying personal information about a person, including nicknames, links to homepages and lists of people they know, in a XML document. The result is machine-readable "semantic web" homepages which can be traversed, forming social networks; in other words, something like Friendster, only open, XML-based and without the emphasis on bootywhang (though surely someone will come up with a namespace for that in due time), and traversable by any of the countless FOAF browsers due to be written in Perl, Python and Java any day now, or by the web-based FOAF Explorer; if your browser does SVG, there's even a graphical network browser there you can use.
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