Updated: On this Thanksgiving morning in the U.S., the Facebook Beacon storm continues to rage (Techmeme). It's simply growing pains for the social graph. In fact, the social graph (which Mark Zuckerberg defines as the network of connections between people) reached a new stage of legitimacy or recognition today with a post by Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web in 1989.
In the post, he broadens the scope of the social graph, linking it to the Semantic Web, coming up with the Giant Global Graph. Nova Spivack of semantic Web startup Radar Networks has defined the semantic graph as "connecting people, places, companies, products, Web pages, videos, photos and turning it into semantic Web content.”
Berners-Lee advocates for common formats such as FOAF, which provides a standard way to describe people, the links between them and the things they create and do on the Web. It's part of his vision of a more intelligent Web, and more specifically it's an echo of the "free the social graph" meme that people like Brad Fitzpatrick, David Recordon, Marc Canter, Joseph Smarr and others have been promoting since social networking became the next big thing.
So the Net and the Web may both be shaped as something mathematicians call a Graph, but they are at different levels. The Net links computers, the Web links documents.
Now, people are making another mental move. There is realization now, "It's not the documents, it is the things they are about which are important". Obvious, really.
Biologists are interested in proteins, drugs, genes. Businesspeople are interested in customers, products, sales. We are all interested in friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances. There is a lot of blogging about the strain, and total frustration that, while you have a set of friends, the Web is providing you with separate documents about your friends. One in facebook, one on linkedin, one in livejournal, one on advogato, and so on. The frustration that, when you join a photo site or a movie site or a travel site, you name it, you have to tell it who your friends are all over again. The separate Web sites, separate documents, are in fact about the same thing -- but the system doesn't know it.
There are cries from the heart (e.g The Open Social Web Bill of Rights) for my friendship, that relationship to another person, to transcend documents and sites. There is a "Social Network Portability" community. Its not the Social Network Sites that are interesting -- it is the Social Network itself. The Social Graph. The way I am connected, not the way my Web pages are connected.We can use the word Graph, now, to distinguish from Web.
I called this graph the Semantic Web, but maybe it should have been Giant Global Graph! Any worse than WWWW? ;-) Not the "Semantic Web" term has been established for a long time, I'm not proposing to change it. But let's think about the graph which it is. (Footnote: "Graph" also happens to be the word the RDF specifications use, but that is by the way. While an XML parser creates a DOM tree, an RDF parser creates an RDF graph in memory.)
So, if only we could express these relationships, such as my social graph, in a way that is above the level of documents, then we would get re-use. That's just what the graph does for us. We have the technology -- it is Semantic Web technology, starting with RDF OWL and SPARQL. Not magic bullets, but the tools which allow us to break free of the document layer. If a social network site uses a common format for expressing that I know Dan Brickley, then any other site or program (when access is allowed) can use that information to give me a better service. Un-manacled to specific documents.
I express my network in a FOAF file, and that is a start of the revolution. I blogged on FOAF files earlier, before the major open SNS angst started. The data in a FOAF file can be read by other applications. Photo-sharing, travel sites, sites which accept your input because you are a part of the graph.
The less inviting side of sharing is losing some control. Indeed, at each layer --- Net, Web, or Graph --- we have ceded some control for greater benefits.
People running Internet systems had to let their computer be used for forwarding other people's packets, and connecting new applications they had no control over. People making web sites sometimes tried to legally prevent others from linking into the site, as they wanted complete control of the user experience, and they would not link out as they did not want people to escape. Until after a few months they realized how the web works. And the re-use kicked in. And the payoff started blowing people's minds.
Letting your data connect to other people's data is a bit about letting go in that sense. It is still not about giving to people data which they don't have a right to. It is about letting it be connected to data from peer sites. It is about letting it be joined to data from other applications.
It is about getting excited about connections, rather than nervous.
In the short, what-can-I-code-up-this-afternoon-to-fix-this term, it is about other sites following the lead of my.opera.com, livejournal, advogato, and so on (list) also exporting a public RDF URI for their members, with what information the person would like to share. Right now, this blog re-uses the FOAF data linked to us to fight spam.
In the long term vision, thinking in terms of the graph rather than the web is critical to us making best use of the mobile web, the zoo of wildy differing devices which will give us access to the system. Then, when I book a flight it is the flight that interests me. Not the flight page on the travel site, or the flight page on the airline site, but the URI (issued by the airlines) of the flight itself. That's what I will bookmark. And whichever device I use to look up the bookmark, phone or office wall, it will access a situation-appropriate view of an integration of everything I know about that flight from different sources. The task of booking and taking the flight will involve many interactions. And all throughout them, that task and the flight will be primary things in my awareness, the websites involved will be secondary things, and the network and the devices tertiary.
I'll be thinking in the graph. My flights. My friends. Things in my life. My breakfast. What was that? Oh, yogourt, granola, nuts, and fresh fruit, since you ask.