Dan Farber was one of the first to cover the Giant Global Graph, here on ZDNet. A few days on, though, there's value in taking a look at how these ideas are being discussed across the blogosphere.
The GGG, or Giant Global Graph. It sounds like something with which you might terrify a child at bed time, but this is no Gruffalo, no Jabberwock, no Smaug. Rather it's father-of-the-web Tim Berners-Lee's label for his latest attempt to express the power of the Semantic Web's core technologies in ways that will resonate beyond the established SemWeb literati. In the post he writes;
“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”
As we might expect when someone like Berners-Lee posts, his thoughts sparked the usual flurry of interest, picked up by The Guardian, Read/Write Web, ZD Net, Nova Spivack, GigaOM, Nick Carr, and a host of other bloggers. The compulsory Wikipedia stub is already in place, and anticipating (at the time of writing) that
“it may become a common expression.”
So what is this Giant Global Graph, how's it related to the Semantic Web, and what does it all mean?
In his post, Tim clarifies the distinction between the Net(work of computers) and the (World Wide) Web offered up over that network;
“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.”
He then goes to the next level, to connect the statements in that web of documents to form a graph;
“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!”
“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.”
So not, then, anything radically new. This is the long-held promise of the Semantic Web, but it is valuable to see that promise rearticulated in something akin to the language of the social network. Those involved in the Semantic Web probably 'knew' all of this at some level, but had perhaps become too caught up in the mechanics and the model, too distant from the point. This is why the Semantic Web matters; the graphing of relationships between resources on the open Web. Not ontology wars. Not RDF-is-better-than-microformats. Not demonstrations of concept in the laboratory and behind the firewall. Not the creation of a shadow web. This. So thank you, Tim, for reminding us. That said, might Nova's 'semantic graph' not be a better label for this important restating of the point than the rather obtuse GGG? 'Giant' and 'Global' set too many alarm bells ringing for me, and hint way too much about all-encompassing-ness and top-down-ness... even if that's (probably) not what Berners-Lee intends. We got waylaid by misconceptions of ontologies as all-encompassing and all-pervasive. Rubbing everyone's noses in 'Giant' and 'Global' just sets us up for yet another round of that particular debate, and I for one have better things to do...
Let's turn to look at some of the commentary that Berners-Lee's post received.
Journalist and author Nick Carr, for example, remarks;
“Sir Tim suggests that the Semantic Web (recently dubbed 'Web 3.0') was really the Social Graph all along, and that the graph represents the third great conceptual leap for the network - from net to web to graph”
“But while it's true that technologists and theoreticians desire to abstract the graph from the sites - and see only the benefits of doing so - it's not yet clear that that's what ordinary users want or even care about. That'll be the real test to whether the graph makes the leap from mathematician to mainstream - and it will also tell us whether a social network like Facebook has a chance to become a true platform or is fated to remain a mere site.”
Nick's concluding point is certainly well made, but probably in the early mobile phone camp (who knew they wanted one?) rather than presenting any insurmountable unwillingness to adopt and adapt. The onus is clearly on us to move beyond the talk, and to demonstrate compelling and desirable benefits to being in (on?) the Graph. Tim O'Reilly's damning criticism of Open Social offers a lesson that we would do well to learn;
“If all OpenSocial does is allow developers to port their applications more easily from one social network to another, that's a big win for the developer, as they get to shop their application to users of every participating social network. But it provides little incremental value to the user, the real target. We don't want to have the same application on multiple social networks. We want applications that can use data from multiple social networks.”
“Set the data free! Allow social data mashups. That's what will be the trump card in building the winning social networking platform.”
Surely we can all agree with those sentiments?
The scepticism is in evidence elsewhere, perhaps most noticeably when Pete Cashmore writes;
“Much like 'Web 2.0', 'ajax', 'crowdsourcing', the 'wisdom of crowds', 'UGC' (user generated content) and other catchy terms before them, the social graph looks set to become a bullet point on every web startup’s VC pitch in 2008. The blessings this week from Tim Berners-Lee make that inevitable.
Let’s leave aside the fact that the 'graph' isn’t a graph in the sense that most people think of it (most would describe it as a 'network') or that the phrase 'social network' could already serve this purpose: there’s a sense that we need a new word for the concept now that these networks are becoming portable, and the term can ride a wave of Facebook hype to become the de facto nomenclature for this latest piece of the portable identity puzzle. Beyond that, the Webfather’s latest blog post gives us a meandering introduction to the social graph’s role in the development of the web.
For the record, I’m not bothered by the phrase: it’s nice to have new labels for specific parts of the solution. I am, however, adopting a new lexicon for my day-to-day life in keeping with the trend: making a landline phone call will now be 'unSkyping', Post-It notes will henceforth be called 'retro-Twitters', going outside will now be 'outdoorsing', a paperback book will be known as a 'Kindle Alpha' and Wednesdays will be Day 3.0. No need to remember any of these, of course: I’ll rename them all next month.”
“Sir Tim Berners-Lee blogged again. This time he invented another new term---Giant Global Graph. Sir Tim uses GGG to describe [the] Internet in a new abstraction layer that is different from either the Net layer abstraction or the Web layer abstraction. Quite a few technique blogs immediately reported this news in this Thanksgiving weekend. I am afraid, however, that few of them really told readers the deeper meaning of this new GGG. To me, this is a signal from the father of World Wide Web: the Web (or the information on [the] Internet) has started to be reorganized from the traditional publisher-oriented structure to the new viewer-oriented structure”
“Both Brad Fitzpatrick and Alex Iskold presented the same observation: every individual web user expects to have an organized social graph of web information in which they are interested. Independently, I had another presentation but about the same meaning. The term I had used was web space. Due to current status of web evolution, web users are going to look for integrating their explored web information of interest into a personal cyberspace---web space. Inside each web space, information is organized as a social graph based on the perspective of the owner of the web space. This is thus the connection between the web spaces under my interpretation and the social graphs under the interpretation of Brad and Alex. Note that this web-space interpretation reveals another implicit but important aspect: the major role of an web-space owner is a web viewer instead of a web publisher”
before concluding that;
“The emergence of this new Graph abstraction of Internet tells that the Web (or information on Internet) is now evolving from a publisher-oriented structure to a viewer-oriented structure. At the Web layer, every web page shows an information organization based on the view of its publishers. Web viewers generally have no control on how web information should be organized. So the Web layer is upon a publisher-oriented structure. At the new proposed Graph layer, every social graph shows an information organization based on the view of graph owners, who are primarily the web viewers. In general, web publishers have little impact on how these social graphs should be composed. 'It's not the documents, it is the things they are about which are important.' Who are going to answer what are 'the things they are about'? It is the viewers instead of the publishers who will answer. This is why information organization at the Graph layer becomes viewer-oriented. The composition of all viewer-oriented social graphs becomes a giant graph at the global scale that is equivalent to the World Wide Web (but based on a varied view); this giant composition is thus the Giant Global Graph (GGG).”
Writing for GigaOM, Anne Zelenka worries that the GGG is not best-suited to the modelling of inter-personal relationships;
“But the Giant Global Graph itself is like Dustin Hoffman’s autistic savant character Raymond Babbitt in the 1988 movie Rain Man. Raymond knew all about plane trips but couldn’t make sense of human relationships.”
“...though Berners-Lee borrows social graph talk, he’s not really concerned with human relationships, but more about things that computers can understand, things like plane trips”
“The semantic web has always been about computers taking on more processing for us, not about computers allowing us to be more human, which is where the social graph might more naturally aim.
Semantic web fans would like to suggest otherwise. Nova Spivack, founder of semantic web startup Radar Networks, as well wants to make everything into a semantic graph story. 'The social graph is a subset of the semantic graph,' he told me.”
Whilst Tim's examples might support Anne's point, I'm unconvinced. The semantic technologies behind the GGG are all about expressing relationships between things, and those relationships might as easily be human or social as a manifestation of the airline timetable. Those social relationships, though, are about far more than the zombification of your 'friends' on Facebook. Rather, we can reach through to the implicit and explicit pattern of relationships between professional peers, students in a class, or citations of an author. We can map the shape of those relationships, and we can leverage existing capabilities to expose them back to participants in the relationship in order to allow them to see it, understand it, and use it in new and beneficial ways.
Richard MacManus also covers the story for Read/Write Web, concluding;
“I'm very pleased Tim Berners-Lee has appropriated the concept of the Social Graph and married it to his own vision of the Semantic Web. What Berners-Lee wrote today goes way beyond Facebook, OpenSocial, or social networking in general. It is about how we interact with data on the Web (whether it be mobile or PC or a device like the Amazon Kindle) and the connections that we can take advantage of using the network. This is also why Semantic Apps are so interesting right now, as they take data connection to the next level on the Web.
Overall, unlike Nick Carr, I'm not concerned whether mainstream people accept the term 'Graph' or 'Social Graph'. It really doesn't matter, so long as the web apps that people use enable them to participate in this 'next level' of the Web. That's what Google, Facebook, and a lot of other companies are trying to achieve.”
I'm not sure that Nick's concern was with acceptance of the term, so much as acceptance of the concept that their data become (potentially) more portable than they understand or wish. And Google, Facebook and the rest have a very long way to go in achieving (or even, in some cases, recognising) an open and actionable graph.
“Incidentally, it's great to see Tim Berners-Lee 're-using' concepts like the Social Graph, or simply taking inspiration from them. He never really took to the Web 2.0 concept, perhaps because it became too hyped and commercialized, but the fact is that the Consumer Web has given us many innovations over the past few years. Everything from Google to YouTube to MySpace to Facebook. So even though Sir Tim has always been about graphs (as he noted in his post, the Graph is essentially the same as the Semantic Web), it's fantastic he is reaching out to the 'web 2.0' community and citing people like Brad Fitzpatrick and Alex Iskold.”
On the Web 3.0 blog, we learn that;
“We sometimes forget the real use of data - that of providing value to humanity in various forms, and providing true functionality as the humans need it. Connections are good, but functionality is paramount. The fact that a company can store ticket information on the web is not sufficient, but the user being able to buy it is significant. A company storing data is not sufficient, it being able to sieve out information from it, transforming it into knowledge, and converting to action is paramount. Someone along this, functionality becomes the significant aspect.
URLs are becoming more potent with XML wrappers (RDF/OWL/SPARQL) around it. The new generation of applications will be playing on these enhancers to achieve seamlessness that we have sorely been lacking in the last 25 years.
The WebTop is becoming more significant than the desktop. Browsers that were a mere window to the world may become a real wide entrance to the world itself. In a very short time, local resources on a computer may have no significance in how users achieve functionality.”
Nova Spivack also offers a long and considered response, picking up on some of Anne's concerns;
“But if the GGG emerges it may or may not be semantic. For example social networks are NOT semantic today, even though they contain various kinds of links between people and other things.
So what makes a graph 'semantic?' How is the semantic graph different from social networks like Facebook for example?”
“A semantic graph is far more reusable than a non-semantic graph -- it's a graph that carries its own meaning.
The semantic graph is not merely a graph with links to more kinds of things than the social graph. It's a graph of interconnected things that is machine-understandable -- it's meaning or 'semantics' is explicitly represented on the Web, just like its data. This is the real way to make social networks open. Merely opening up their API's is just the first step”
and concludes with;
“The Giant Global Graph may or may not be a semantic graph. That depends on whether it is implemented with, or at least connected to, W3C standards for the Semantic Web.
I believe that because the Semantic Web makes data-integration easier, it will ultimately be widely adopted. Simply put, applications that wish to access or integrate data in the Age of the Web can more easily do so using RDF and OWL. That alone is reason enough to use these standards.
Of course there are many other benefits as well, such as the ability to do more sophisticated reasoning across the data, but that is less important. Simply making data more accessible, connectable, and reusable across applications would be a huge benefit.”
So where does all of that leave us?
Well, I don't think we saw something new created last week. What we saw was a restating of some principles at the heart of the Semantic Web, a recognition that the social graph so frequently mentioned in relation to the big Social Networking sites shares many of those principles. Finally, we saw the beginning of an informed discussion that might - finally - see the fruits of many years of Semantic Web research and development surfaced in language that can be used in conversation with the pragmatists building the mainstream Web of today, aligned to technologies and techniques fitting for that Web, rather than simply making the gloomy shadows a bit more pronounced.
Which brings us, with all due respect to Julia Donaldson, right back to the Gruffalo! :-)
“'A gruffalo? What's a gruffalo?'
'A gruffalo! Why, didn't you know? He has terrible triples, and terrible graphs, and terrible OWL in his terrible ontologies.'”
Hmm. Maybe not. Read the original anyway, it's good...