Thursday, November 22, 2007

Social Networking as Reuse

Just been reading an excellent blog post by Tim Berners-Lee about the Giant Global Graph, telling a familiar story in a powerful and elegant fashion, and describing the development of the internet and semantic web in terms of increasing abstraction, interoperability and reuse.

  • The Net - full name International Information Infrastructure (III). Abstracting away from the wiring to allow interoperability and reuse of computers.
  • The Web - full name World Wide Web (WWW). Abstracting away from computers to allow interoperability and reuse of documents.
  • The Graph - proposed name Giant Global Graph (GGG). Abstracting away from documents to allow interoperability and reuse of resources and relationships.
Berners-Lee focuses on the interoperability of relationship descriptions - friend-of-a-friend (FOAF) descriptions and the like - but of course these can be regarded merely as a special kind of document - a document that happens to be expressed in the form of a graph.

But that set me wondering about the next logical step. For some people at least, social networking is not just about finding new acquaintances (so-called "friends") but also finding new ways of connecting with existing acquaintances. I accepted a Linked-In invitation from someone I'd corresponded with on a Complexity-and-Management mailing list, and found myself deluged with messages asking me (among other things) to vote for him in some local election in the USA and to buy real estate in Florida. While this kind of reuse might be regarded as at least a breach of etiquette, if not downright spam, it is not unusual for people to try and forge business relationships with people they have met socially, and vice versa.

Why do wealthy people send their children to expensive schools? Not just because it gets them a better education, and a better chance of getting into a better university but because it buys them into the "old boy network". It is not necessary to know exactly how the child will benefit from membership in this network to be convinced of its value (and the disadvantages for those excluded, for whatever reason).

Here's a fictional example of the old boy network at work. An executive within the prawn sandwich industry talks to a journalist who is the Chief Sandwich Correspondent of the Daily Prawn, and is told about a plan by the National Prawn Authority to reduce the permitted level of iodine. When she gets back to her office she picks up the phone ... The following week, she and the Deputy Prawn Minister both happen to be present at an informal lunch, at which the conversation happens to touch upon the iodine question ...

I think it might take a while before Linked-In and Facebook can replicate this kind of affordance. This is not just a question of shared semantics (meaning) but of shared purpose (pragmatics).

However, this example illustrates the kind of instrumentality (use-purpose) implicit in social networking. We may wish to use other people's knowledge and know-how, we may wish other people to use our own knowledge and know-how, and we may wish to help our friends as well as ourselves. What we don't want is to feel we are being "used".

But just as the net has changed the way we think about computers ("the network IS the computer"), and the web has changed the way we think about (hyper-) documents and (web) services, so the graph (if that is what we must call it) is going to change the way we think about friendship and about social protocols (etiquette in the broadest sense).

If there are many people who have the required know-how, it is the graph that tells me which one to contact. Do I pick the one that is closest, or with the strongest connections? Do I pick one who is as distant as possible from my competitors? Am I looking to pay back past favours, or to put someone in my debt? Or do I pick someone who is outside the usual bunch, who would help me extend my graph into new areas?

It is already a known phenomenon that people sometimes seem more concerned with the quantity of their "friends" than with the quality of their friendships. As we get better tools for visualizing the Graph (across multiple platforms), some people may start to worry about the shape of their graph.

In the old days, people who were obsessed with the social position of their social acquaintances (and would adjust their relationships with people whose social position altered) were known as snobs or social climbers. Now there are people who wish to know how many venture capitalists are contained in their FOAF graph, in how many different countries, and people who would upgrade an acquaintance when he moves from a university post to an executive post. Plus ca change.

So that seems to be the direction we are heading. The graph is not merely a machine-readable description of a social network, it is the social network itself. And the value afforded by social networking comes from abstraction and reuse. In which case, there are some challenging implications to explore ...

No comments: