Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Anti-social Graph

I made all of these arguments with Brad myself many years ago. Sometimes it takes a geek to fight a geek, and this guy backs up my arguments with the math of graphs.

Relationships are better described in venn diagrams anyway.

But that would take a graphic (and I mean ILLUSTRATED) user interface, not the crap that Google+ and Facebook give us.

I would further add that you can have *a* social graph, but there is no such thing as *the* social graph.

Amplify’d from blog.pinboard.in

I first came across the phrase social graph in 2007, in an essay by Brad Fitzpatrick, though I'd be curious to know if it goes back further.

At the time he wrote, Fitzpatrick had two points to make. The first was that it made no sense for every social website to try and recreate the same web of relationships, over and over, by making people send each other follow requests. The second was that this relationship data should not be proprietary, but a common resource that rival services could build on as a foundation.

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?

I. It's not a graph

We nerds love graphs because they are easy to represent in a computer and there is a vast literature on how to do useful things with them. When you ask Google for directions from Detroit to Redwood City, for example, you're interacting with a graph that represents the US road network. The same principle applies any time a site tells you people who bought object X might also be interested in book Y.

And then there's the question of how to describe the more complicated relationships that human beings have. Maybe my friend Bill is a little abrasive if he starts drinking, but wonderful with kids - how do I mark that? Dawn and I go out sometimes to kvetch over coffee, but I can't really tell if she and I would stay friends if we didn't work together. I'd like to be better friends with Pat. Alex is my AA sponsor. Just how many kinds of edges are in this thing?

You can call this nitpicking, but this stuff matters! This is supposed to be a canonical representation of human relationships. But it only takes five minutes of reading the existing standards to see that they're completely inadequate.

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.

II. It's Not Social

The problem FOAF ran headlong into was that declaring relationships explicitly is a social act. Documenting my huge crush on Matt in an XML snippet might faithfully reflect the state of the world, but it also broadcasts a strong signal about me to others, and above all to Matt. The essence of a crush is that it's furtive, so by declaring it in this open (but weirdly passive) way I've turned it into something different and now, dammit, I have to go back and edit my FOAF file again.

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.

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.

III What, then, is to be done?

Now tell me one bit of original culture that's ever come out of Facebook.

Right now the social networking sites occupy a similar position to CompuServe, Prodigy, or AOL in the mid 90's. At that time each company was trying to figure out how to become a mass-market gateway to the Internet. Looking back now, their early attempts look ridiculous and doomed to failure, for we have seen the Web, and we have tasted of the blogroll and the lolcat and found that they were good.

My hope is that whatever replaces Facebook and Google+ will look equally inevitable, and that our kids will think we were complete rubes for ever having thrown a sheep or clicked a +1 button. It's just a matter of waiting things out, and leaving ourselves enough freedom to find some interesting, organic, and human ways to bring our social lives online.

—maciej on November 08, 2011

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