The Social Graph: Problems with Portability

Written by Bonnie Boglioli...January 28, 2011

The social graph. No other concept has so fluidly permeated the vernacular that it’s tough to decide which accolade Mark Zuckerberg will be remembered for first: founding the largest ‘social graph’ in the world or coining the term. The term, graphically represented by a sociogram, is applied to an abstract concept which maps and illustrates online connections and it’s a powerful tool that is used to great effect. Yet despite its assured potential, the social graph does have an Achilles Heel: portability.

Anything but a small hiccup, data portability is not a new issue but given the ramifications on our social networking era it’s quickly becoming a dilemma for organizations and users alike. Why? Simply put, there is no single, comprehensive, decentralized social graph in existence today.

While Facebook is doing its part to broaden its vast reach on the landscape, each social site or service has its own proprietary graph requiring us to lug around our data and hope it’s secure- turning it into a burden we bear rather than an asset we carry. Let’s examine the effect of the social graph on users and businesses and its greatest weakness, portability.

The Social Graph and the User

We’re all carrying around significant amounts of digital information that act as fingerprints and footprints. Harnessing the power of the social graph, we can reunite with elementary school classmates, find like-minded friends at the local java joint or jockey for a better job thanks to knowing the guy who knows the guy who knows the man… and do it all effortlessly.

The only problem is that it isn’t exactly effortless. Our connections and data are spread over a vast digital landscape. While many of us keep in touch with friends and relatives on Facebook, we have a different set of acquaintances on LinkedIn and Foursquare. In many cases, we want groups and data to remain separate but in other instances we’d like to port an entire network, subgroup or information from one service to the next.

Until recently, we have been the ones left to search for old contacts on new platforms while adding our information and interests all over again- tedious, boring and capping our potential interest in exploring new sites and services. There are several options to avoid this test of patience which we’ll explore, but they have yet to extend to all corners of the web. That little fact is at the heart of the social graph portability dilemma: if we could easily migrate our connections and data via a web-wide social network that would allow us all to take our chunk of the social graph to every corner, the web might reach its full potential.

The Social Graph and Business

Data portability allows businesses to leverage the social graph’s power of numbers. Seamless portability leads to wider adoption by users (remember, users don’t enjoy the tedious nature of finding and adding contacts and information on each new site). For market researchers, the social graph is an unparalleled tool offering analytics and access to users’ data and connections. For developers, the social graph allows for the integration of more precise features on, say, apps with a specific userbase in mind. It’s little wonder that Mark Zuckerberg presciently understood the consequences of his little startup just four years ago. It’s also the reason why Facebook has been able to effectively broaden its reach, growing exponentially while tapping into the social graph of its userbase.

No exploration of the social graph would be complete without a glimpse into the largest social graph in the world (at this time), Facebook. Utilizing the Facebook Graph API, sites can connect with their user’s entire Facebook graph, arguably accessing a treasure trove of data. Given the amount of sway Facebook has over the social graph, it’s little wonder that they’re eager to explore new opportunities and partnerships for advertising, gaming and the like. It’s also significant to remember that they have come under close scrutiny with users and privacy advocates alike (which we’ll explore later).

Current Options for Portability

There are a few options to leverage the social graph despite the lack of a cohesive means of accessing the web-wide social graph. Google has spent several years advocating for a single, open standard thanks in no small part to current employee (and social graph guru) Brad Fitzpatrick. They have developed the Social Graph API, an open standard which returns web addresses of public connections and pages.

WindowsLive Contact API, Google’s API and others allow you to carry over your contacts to other service sites with a great degree of portability, though devoid of the social graph aside from contact lists and the like. Likewise, open authentication and authorization services (such as OpenID and oAuth), allow users to readily find their connections (and some content if approved) as they move from site to site, saving valuable time and making their experience more seamless. This also serves to effectively broaden the reach of the service for the provider.

Several social services are in the pipeline that have drawn considerable attention and admiration. Diaspora, a crowd-funded startup by four college students, promises an open source personal web server that stores information and allows users to securely share it on their own social graph. Still in beta phase, Diaspora’s potential was so readily understood by the community at large that it successfully crowd-funded $200,000 (it had hoped for $10,000).

Growing Pains for the Social Graph

Despite these moves towards a more portable social graph, the current state remains in silos with proprietary social graphs acting as the dominant havens for our personal data and connections (be it Facebook, Plaxo, Tumblr, Twitter- the list goes on). Though incentives for leaving those walled gardens can be alluring, reasons for staying are higher still. That’s bad news for startup entrepreneurs that heavily factored in the social graph to the company scaling outlook, and it isn’t exactly going to bring the web-wide social graph to its apogee, either.

Grappling with growing pains and rising awareness of privacy concerns are another important aspect of this new age of the social graph. As more of us digitize aspects of our lives, we seek the convenience currently served by a handful of social networks. Some argue that we’ve become too complacent with regards to our information floating in the hands of such a select group. Facebook, for instance, now faces fines in Germany for the sharing of information to unsolicited advertisers while Google faces similar battles in the E.U.

Increasingly, people are aware of what they want to share, with whom and where they share it.  Precedent is being set which will ultimately shape the social graph for years to come, but until we see a truly open social graph network we are left to piece together a growing puzzle of everyone’s digital selves.

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