It’s Not a Social Network “Dashboard”, it’s a “Social Graph”

August 19th, 2007

Suddenly this week I’ve started hearing the term “social graph” all over. Brad Feld has been talking about it and so has Fred Wilson, though it looks like they both read the same piece published last week by Brad Fitzpatrick, developer of the LiveJournal blogging platform. As I understand it, the social graph is the glue that ties people together over the web- whether it be a set of Outlook contacts or MySpace friends.

I hadn’t heard the term before so I googled it and got a bunch of hits going back at least a few months, though it seems to have gained more currency in the last month or so. It’s a decent phrase, though a little wonky and hard to pin down (compared to say, “web 2.0”, ha!). Wikipedia doesn’t seem to recognize it officially and refers readers to the entry on “social network” instead.

Substantively, social graph is a much broader idea than the social network dashboard I have blogged about previously. Fitzpatrick’s article is essentially a manifesto for an open source framework that all networks could use as a backdrop for contacts and organization, among other things. It’s a cool idea for sure and I’d love to see it happen.

As I think about it, though, the work required for a user to flesh out a set of contacts on any social network is part of what keeps the user loyal to the platform. Loyalty means, largely, pageviews and advertising click-throughs, i.e. the main source of revenue for most networks. If my contact set becomes a “commodity” I can drop in to any network, will I jump around among networks more readily?

Maybe, or maybe not. Lots of people belong to six zillion networks already so it isn’t like we would suddenly all switch off Linkedin and turn on Facebook- maybe we just gravitate more toward one or another as featuresets evolve. More to the point, I read Fitzpatrick as saying in part that developing the social graph-building tools is hard work that essentially reinvents the wheel every time. An open-source social graph “standard wheel” would free up companies to focus more on the content. Actually, commoditizing the contacts would require networks to focus on differentiation of their content/platform/benefits rather than just locking in users.

As I write this, I realize that idea sounds a lot like Facebook’s F8 platform, but without the “inbound only” traffic flow that so many people have expressed frustration with. No wonder Fitzpatrick’s idea hit a nerve with Feld and Wilson.

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