social graph

In September 2006, Facebook became available to anyone in the world. At their developer conference the following May, they invented a term that made their venture capital-funded runaway bumper car sound like noble science: “the social graph”. There’s even a Wikipedia page about it.

The idea is that mapping everyone’s relationships in the world would be illuminating extremely valuable. Facebook was poised to be the canonical repository of this data as we all raced to “friend” every person we’d talked to for more than three minutes at the supermarket. Friend requests became the new phone number exchange.

Oh boy did we eat up that term in the technorati. We were breathless to write about it, to add it to our sites in superficial ways, to hitch our wagons to the next best thing since Web 2.0. But it was purely chimeric, because there is no canonical social graph, and no way for one entity to represent all of it. Relationships are context-dependent and often undefined even by the two people involved. We knew this before Zuck wrote a line of code! FICO tried to create a global financial reputation and we’re still trying to control its misapplication via legislation. Yahoo tried it on the web and failed. They wrote a book about it around the time Facebook coined the term. Klout used millions of dollars to try yet again, anyway.

A troll in one community can be a trusted expert in another. The daughter you’re worried about is a role model for someone you never met. How does an acquaintance become a friend? The hubris of thinking you can usefully “graph” all of this complexity in the world by people clicking “Add Friend” on a website is astounding.

When’s the last time you heard anyone talk about the social graph, if you ever did?

It turns out it was all just another way to sell ads. Like PageRank before it, this high-minded “science” was, in the end, the same old business model strapped on top of new technology. Google charged in with Google+ to try to maintain its monopoly, but failed and retreated. The monopoly became a duopoly. Now you could find content by searching or by your friends & family sharing it.

They made the world’s best sharing software and made piles of money, like the search people before them. That’s the whole story.