Social Confusion?

Tim O’Reilly’s keynote at the Graphing Social Patterns conference seems to have readily accepted the term ‘Social Graph‘, recently applied by Mark Zuckerberg to his FaceBook service. socialgraph.gifReading Sean Ammirati’s coverage of the talk reminded me of my own reservations about this term. When I first heard it I was a little confused. The immediate question was how is this different from a Social Network? – a term I thought I was familiar with. Realizing that this is tip to graph theory I wondered if referring to a rather abstract theoretical construct helps anyone to understand the Social Network phenomenon. Apparently I wasn’t the only one and Josh Catone raised very similar concerns when he asked, Is it Time to Retire the Social Graph? There is a rather brisk discussion taking place amongst the pundits on this distinction. Josh covers this discussion briefly and concisely. Dave Winer questions whether there is benefit to introducing a new term that doesn’t seem to contribute to the public understanding of a potentially abstract concept. I particularly like his plea “Copy editors, just change “social graph” to “social network.” Robert Scoble weighs in in support of the term and suggests that a Social Network is a rather narrow and shallow entity and that it reflects relationships as they may exist without the aid of services such as Zuckerberg’s, but that graph provides us with a truer way of describing networks (or graphs) that are in fact more abstract communities of shared interest that have arisen through the application of social networking technologies. If I am able to get his gist.

Reflection on and subsequent discussion seem to have moved in two very divergent directions. One follows the marketing tale and wonders if graph is the right term from a market resonant standpoint. I admit to agreeing that graph has little traction let alone stopping someone in their tracks confused – and there are of course those in some schools that figure this is an appropriate form of advertising. I don’t and there are far too many technical terms that can be thrown about to confuse. We need more that allow more people to appreciate and understand abstract concepts, if only for sake of understanding. Social Network works for me – and I sense for many people. Maybe Zuckerberg is trying to differentiate, pontificate or find a niche as a philosopher. He’s already got a service that’s shaking the world.

The other angle on the discussion ponders how the term ‘Social Network‘ is as yet rather ill-defined relative to the gap between social network theory and the paradigm shift that is happening with the advent of services such as FaceBook. In this discussion there is a place for discussion of the Social Graph – and reflection on the how theory can help us to appreciate what is going on. That being said, the theory should evolve and I am sure is. Graph does raise the issue and give us pause to consider whether the theory is reflecting the practise.

Update: Looks like the term ‘social graph’ is being cemented in place.

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