The Social Graph and Objects of Sociality

Why our relationships can’t be explained without the objects and experiences that we share.

One of the biggest problems on the Web is joining a new social networking site. To do so means going through the painful effort of creating a profile and adding all of our friends, something we’ve done over and over…at least once for each social networking site we already belong to. This is quickly becoming an issue for everyone who uses social networks.

This problem has led to a flurry of activity, highlighted by LiveJournal creator Brad Fitzpatrick’s missive: Thoughts on the Social Graph, in which he clearly outlines the issues involved as well as some worthy goals to shoot for. Brad’s piece was followed shortly after by the Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web, which among its rights is the right to allow users to syndicate their own profile and friend data. This, of course, would alleviate the squeaky wheel.

Social Network

In addition there are countless groups getting together to try and solve this problem. The microformats folks are working on building formats to help with this. The DataSharingSummit is an entire event focused on this and related problems. All of this activity is centered around one idea: that people have a social graph that can be represented in software. In other words, we can recreate our offline relationships online and let everyone know about it by sharing some sort of file or feed.

The major axis of the social graph, as Fitzpatrick points out, is relationships between people, or more simply, a list of friends. My social graph, for example, consists of my friends, colleagues, family, and acquaintances. These people I know to some extent or another, some I talk with daily, some I know only online, and some I would rather not speak to. :)

Why our relationships can’t be explained without the objects and experiences that we share.

One of the biggest problems on the Web is joining a new social networking site. To do so means going through the painful effort of creating a profile and adding all of our friends, something we’ve done over and over…at least once for each social networking site we already belong to. This is quickly becoming an issue for everyone who uses social networks.

This problem has led to a flurry of activity, highlighted by LiveJournal creator Brad Fitzpatrick’s missive: Thoughts on the Social Graph, in which he clearly outlines the issues involved as well as some worthy goals to shoot for. Brad’s piece was followed shortly after by the Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web, which among its rights is the right to allow users to syndicate their own profile and friend data. This, of course, would alleviate the squeaky wheel.

Social Network

In addition there are countless groups getting together to try and solve this problem. The microformats folks are working on building formats to help with this. The DataSharingSummit is an entire event focused on this and related problems. All of this activity is centered around one idea: that people have a social graph that can be represented in software. In other words, we can recreate our offline relationships online and let everyone know about it by sharing some sort of file or feed.

The major axis of the social graph, as Fitzpatrick points out, is relationships between people, or more simply, a list of friends. My social graph, for example, consists of my friends, colleagues, family, and acquaintances. These people I know to some extent or another, some I talk with daily, some I know only online, and some I would rather not speak to. :)

At this point we could easily move forward and accept the common notion of social networks: that they are made up only of relationships between people. But for those folks working deeply on these issues another problem soon arises: the realization that there is more to the social graph than just people…there are objects that mediate our relationships as well.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the word “mediate” because it is not entirely clear what it means. But in this case it means something like this: our relationships with other people are determined in part by the activities and objects we share. This idea has long been known in the world of social psychology, and could have big effects on the utility of the social graph going forward.

For example, our YouTube and MySpace and Flickr friends exist partly in relation to the content that we’ve shared with each other on those sites. Our lifelong friends exist in relation to the things we’ve done together: the places we’ve gone to, the words we’ve spoken, and the movies we’ve seen. It doesn’t make sense to talk about our friends without these mediating objects, and that’s why our social graph must also represent them as well.

This view is explained wonderfully by Jyri Engeström in this post: Why some social network services work and others don’t — Or: the case for object-centered sociality . Engeström argues for an “objects of sociality” view of social networks, where people aren’t the only objects necessary for relationships. Engeström’s post is in turn based on the work of sociology professor Karin Knorr Cetina.

This notion of “objects of sociality” helps explain the success of sites such as YouTube, Flickr, and Netflix. (and, I might add, the slideshow sharing service Slideshare co-created by my friend Rashmi Sinha, whom I first heard the term “objects of sociality” from). What these services have done is to create a system that supports relationships around the objects of videos, photos, and movies, and slideshows. And as I wrote about the other day (What if YouTube was simply lucky?), their success seems based on their ability to make the activities of uploading, viewing, and sharing as painless as possible.

Still, Jyri suggests that most notions of social networks are restricted to people. He says:

“Approaching sociality as object-centered is to suggest that when it becomes easy to create digital instances of the object, the online services for networking on, through, and around that object will emerge too. Social network theory fails to recognise such real-world dynamics because its notion of sociality is limited to just people.”

It’s interesting to note that Facebook, who is at the center of this social graph discussion because of their partially-closed (or partially-open, however you want to look at it) system, asks everyone who adds a friend how you know them. They want to know if you worked with them, if you went to school with them, or if you met them through an acquaintance. These items, the job, the school, and the other friend, are the very objects of sociality that make the relationship work.

Published: September 11th, 2007

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