The Story of the Social Graph

HotBot (1997)

Long, long ago, the internet used to be a sea of web-pages filled with text.

Back in the day, search engines worked with text based algorithms that used to churn out results based on the merits of each page. There was a lot of spamming since the pages were ranked solely on the merits of that singular page. It was easy to game the algorithm and regularly we would find irritating links popping up at the head of the search results. But for a while it was good.

Google (1998)

Then came the first real game-changer in the search field. Two little known geniuses Larry Page (first) and Sergey Brin (later) came into the picture with their thesis paper – “The Anatomy of a Large Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine“. In the paper they discussed the organization of Google – their search engine, which used links between pages to calculate the relative rank of a page along with the content the page contained i.e. If someone great pointed to you, you would get some reflected greatness.

Contrary to the predictions of many experts, Google, with its super targeted and focused product ideas – from the simple ad-less,link-less front page to the targeted sponsored links – it all just clicked.

The result of that was (finally) the general understanding of the web as a collection of documents or pages with links between them. One big web.

Few years passed and “Social” became the new buzz around the valley. Personally, I am against the whole ‘buzz-word’ concept. But buzz-words indicate a deeper flow of money. The online junta were singing into and becoming active on multiple sites just to interact with their “friends”. Advertisers jostled, investors woo-ed and many a 20-something became rich overnight.

And we finally reach, the today. Well, not quite the today, but 2007 to be precise. Google’s Brad Fitzpatrick – the man behind such beasts as LiveJournal and OpenID – started working on a Social Graph. He wrote a blog post discussing the various issues relating to having such a graph. The problems he discusses and later solved through (not exactly) Google’s open standard Social Graph attempt.

A social graph shows the web as a large graph of connections between people. The user is at the centre of the whole web. The pages can be considered either as leaf-nodes in the graph or as entities themselves.How it helps is quite straight forward. Users who want to sign into a new network can use their unique social id of some kind and access the network and not have to worry about anything else.

People are getting sick of registering and re-declaring their friends on every site., but also: Developing “Social Applications” is too much work.

This is what Brad had to say about using facebook as the unique id (mind you, this was way back in 2007)

Facebook’s answer seems to be that the world should just all be Facebook apps. While Facebook is an amazing platform and has some amazing technology, there’s a lot of hesitation in the developer / “Web 2.0” community about being slaves to Facebook, dependent on their continued goodwill, availability, future owners, not changing the rules, etc. That hesitation I think is well-founded. A centralized “owner” of the social graph is bad for the Internet. I’m not saying anybody should ban Facebook, though! Far from it. It’s a great product, and I love it, but the graph needs to exist outside of Facebook. MySpace also has a lot of good data, but not all of it. Likewise LiveJournal, Digg, Twitter, Zooomr, Pownce, Friendster, Plaxo, the list goes on. More important is that any one of these sites shouldn’t own it; nobody/everybody should. It should just exist.

Now, Brad and his mates at Google made the Google Social Graph. Well, this is the intro video for that one in which the main focus is on getting to know who your friends are across different networks (from 2008)

Facebook's (not so) Open Graph API

Now finally, coming to the Facebook Open Graph. As you’ve probably guessed, this isn’t exactly a new idea. Facebook brought with it the clout that comes with 500 million minions.Facebook clubbed the release with a newly designed any-idiot-can-do-it API and an easy Social Plugin feature both of which will ensure mass adoption and population of the facebook graph.

Where Google wasn’t really too interested in monetization, Facebook designed a system which is easily monetizable by making the final landing point of all data shared – as Facebook.com.

The only glitch here is that the users need not be too impressed with the privacy issues such moves entail. As I had blogged earlier, you can sign yourself out from these services but you CAN’T protect all your information. The only way to be sure that data like your age, gender and others aren’t used by others to make money is to remove it completely.

Its hard to see Facebook being unable to ride through the initial privacy difficulties. They have hit their critical mass, and there will always be a good number of people who won’t give a rats ass about advertisers.

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