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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