Thursday, November 22, 2007

Social Graphs and Unsocial Graphs

Tim Berners-Lee just wrote a wonderful note on the social graph. He points out that just as the "III" (net) connected computers, and the "WWW" (web) connected documents, the "GGG" (giant global graph) will connect real objects - including people.

So let's return to OpenSocial, Google's new social networking API. I already commented that it might (just) be an open API, but it certainly doesn't open the data - connections between people - which is the important thing. It shouldn't be only Myspace widgets that can securely access this information, but any website.

Tim's blog reveals a further issue - it's not just about connecting people, but connecting anything! OpenSocial doesn't seem to handle my CV, my possessions, my train tickets or what I ate for breakfast this morning. OpenSocial might be a small step forward, but it's not nearly the full answer - it only handles basic information about people.

Tim has clearly found a huge and important issue to resolve, and more people in the industry should be paying attention. Unfortunately, I just don't think they are.

Part of the issue is that he's way before his time - everyone is still focused on the document (HTML). Another issue is that his proposed solution, rdf, doesn't carry enough incentives for people to use it - I can't put adverts in rdf, I can't directly create compelling content with rdf, and anyway no applications take advantage of it yet. A third issue is that it's not clear how HTML (e.g. a Wikipedia entry on breakfasts) would sit alongside rdf (some XML technical markup that describes the same thing).

There is a way out. Create a new open data format standard that describes a person (Google have made a start on this already with GData), and add it to OpenSocial. Make this data format compatible with RDF, e.g. FOAF. And finally, hand the data over to the user - it's theirs to manage.

That way, at least one usage of RDF will take off - information about people and their connections. OpenSocial will gain new momentum, since the data will be free, not just the API. And finally we'll have a springboard for the graph - not just social ones, but any graph - to take off.

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