Explaining what the “Social Graph” is to your Executives

Many are talking about the Social Graph at the technical level, leaving many business folks with many questions. The following, using clear business language (void of tech speak), will explain what is the Social Graph, why it matters, and what you should do.

In respecting your time, I’ve boiled down the entire post to seventy words:

Executive Summary
The Social Graph is the representation of our relationships. Today, these graphs define our personal, family, or business communities on social websites. Unfortunately, we’re duplicating our same Social Graph on multiple websites, resulting in inaccurate data and time spent managing it. Despite many challenges, our Social Graphs should be self-managed from a single trusted source, replicated to websites of our choosing, thus resulting in accurate, efficient, relationship management.

Want to be able to have an intelligent conversation with others on the topic? The detailed, more in-depth analysis follows:

Relationships are nothing new, from paper based address books, to the arrangement of huts in early villages, we’re social creatures. The big change? The internet has broken down physical barriers, allowing us to connect and create online communities.

Online social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Ancestry.com, and thousands of others are increasing in global adoption. I predict that social networking features will be part of nearly every website.

While we have many networks, and thus many social graphs they often fit into three major categories: business, personal, and family. Alex Iksold breaks down the components to three specific elements: People Identity, Type of Relationships, and Relationships Identity. These relationships can be mapped, displayed, or documented in what we call the Social Graph.

[Definition: The Social Graph is the representation of our relationships. In present day context, these graphs define our personal, family, or business communities on social networking websites]

Today, individuals are part of many online social networks. Sadly, the same Social Graph is inefficiently being duplicated; we’re forced to add the same contacts to each social network. Beyond frustration, this results in inaccurate networks, and inability to control our own data. As we join and register more websites, this pain will grow exponentially.

[Unfortunately, we’re duplicating our same Social Graph information on websites with social features, it’s annoying to manage and inaccurate across sites. These disparate and disjointed social graphs will not scale, ultimatly resulting in a fragmented user experience as we use multiple websites]

Opportunity: Aggregating Social Graphs
The idea is simple: Allow relationships to be quickly shared once and then replicated across multiple websites. A movement has been started to allow these relationships to be transplanted from one social network to another. The goal? reduce inefficient adding of relationships, improving the accuracy of the network, and providing users with control and management of their relationship data.


Users: For users this means efficiency and control over one’s personal data, their relationships, and how they are deployed on different social networks, it makes navigating the web better.

Social Networks: For companies that are social networks, they can benefit by increasing the amount of users as the social graph will populate all of a users network they permit.

All other websites: For companies that are not currently social networks, (like a corporate website) expect these social features to be part of your site. People will co-surf and share information about your content whether you like it or not.

Scenario: What does success look like?
In the most ideal scenario, aggregation of the social graph would allow Ted to quickly move from one social network to another, his trusted contacts would be pre-populated (as specified by Ted) and sharing of information would be instant. Furthermore, Ted would be able to quickly aggregate all information about his friend Chris on one page, and see what Chris has chosen to share across all social networks. Lastly, Ted would have full control over his graphs and can remove, adjust, or modify at will. Ted is in control, has accurately updated information from his social networks, and saves time at work, in his personal life, and with his family. He has more time to do what he really wants, which is to read this Web Strategy blog.

How can this be accomplished?
By centralizing a users Social Graph on a trusted, third party area that can be a central place where relationships are updated, and then replicated to every social networking website using a common process and technology.

Many Challenges

Like many new initiatives, we’ve not laid out the infrastructure for open relationship movement, there’s a few obstacles to overcome.

  • Social Network vendors scared to open up and let customers and their relationships easily move to other networks
  • Agreement needed between all vendors and participants
  • Ownership over project and data
  • Lack of general market awareness
  • User adoption (sadly, I think most users are sheep)
  • Likely, a need for a single login
  • Creation and costs of third-party silo
  • Privacy concerns: many European countries may not embrace
  • Multiple security issues
  • Legal and government may get involved
  • As an industry, these challenges are not insurmountable, what’s required is a clear roadmap, willingness for vendors to ‘let go’ and industry-wide support.

    Future Outlook

    Recently, an alliance called OpenSocial was formed between Google, MySpace, (list) to create an agreement so applications could easily be ported from one network to another. Although still at it’s starting point this alliance should be the precursor to establishing the management and flexibility of the Social Graph. To learn more about OpenSocial read: Explaining OpenSocial to your executives.

    [Ideally, our Social Graphs should be self-managed from a single trusted source, and then replicated to websites of our choosing, thus resulting in accurate, efficient relationship management]

    What you should do:

    1) Wait and Watch: We’re still at the conceptual level, although several vendors are working hard to release products or services to fix this, there’s not much to do.

    2) Plan: If you work for a company that has relationships on it’s website (having a ‘login’ is a key indicator) then you should make your web teams aware of this market change, and have an internal discussion.

    3) Obtain more information:
    I’ve created a new tag called Social Graph on this blog, and will keep you updated of changes as I see it. Being an industry analyst, vendors will brief me, I’ll analyze with my peers, and report back.

    Additional Resources:

  • Brad Fitzpatrick, who’s leading the movement provides solutions and discusses where he’s at, developers should work with him.
  • Plaxo, a vendor in this space is moving forward: Building an Open Social Graph
  • Six Apart: Is supporting and will release versions of the social graph
  • Alex Iksold: Social Graph Concepts and Issues
  • Jim Calhoun: Has a great video where he explains how the Social Graph works
  • Josh of RWW suggests that we should retire the term Social Graph and use the term Social Network
  • Dave Winer: Suggest we use the term social network, I get what he’s saying, yet the need for portability and aggregation between social networks that is the crux of the issue.
  • I suggest that one way is to use a browser as a viewer for the social graph
  • Why this analysis?
    When I’m asked the same question several times (in this case, colleague Jennifer D and Bill Claxton), it’s a signal to write an explanatory blog post.

    Feedback from peers
    I’m trying to be as accurate as possible and incorporated the feedback of the two-line definition from my peers at the Blog World Expo which included Marshall Kirkpatrick, Jeremy Pepper, Jake McKee, Stephanie Agresta, Chris Heuer, and anyone else who would listen to me. Please note they did not approve or review the rest of the text.

    Your comments wanted, even if you don’t agree

    For more posts like this, I’ve tagged it Web Strategy, where I publish many how-to, and what-you-should-know posts

    If you have suggestions to improve this document, leave a comment, and I’ll update as appropriate, I hope you share this with others.