30 Sep 2010 8:24 am   //   Filed under: Labeling, Media, Technology

Nobody knows what “social graph” means

For three years, people who write and speak about technology have been using the phrase social graph. It’s sometimes used casually like a synonym for Facebook, the company that popularized the term. But what does social graph really mean, and where did it come from?

Before 2007, the two words “social” and “graph” had occasionally been used in academia to discuss, literally, a visualization showing how people were connected by social relationships.

The earliest reference I can find to the modern sense of “social graph” is from a Facebook press release issued May 24, 2007:

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg today unveiled Facebook Platform, calling on all developers to build the next-generation of applications with deep integration into Facebook, distribution across its “social graph” and an opportunity to build new businesses.

Applications will gain distribution through what Zuckerberg called the “social graph,” the network of real connections through which people communicate and share information.

So there’s Definition One. Almost immediately following that press release, tech pundits began using the phrase aggressively in blogs and PowerPoint presentations. The first reference to it I can find in the popular media is a London Times article from September 11, 2007, which defined social graph as “a vast database of its users’ social and professional relationships.”

By September 2007, people were already growing suspicious that “social graph” didn’t actually mean anything new. Media and technology writer Dave Winter wrote, “Social network is a much less confusing term, so why don’t we just stick with it?”

But despite Winter’s early warning, “social graph” was here to stay. In October 2007, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked to define the phrase during a talk at the Web 2.0 Summit. Zuckerberg said:

When we talk about the social graph, we’re talking about the set of connections, whether it’s friendships, business connections, acquaintances, that everyone has in the world. And this has always existed, we didn’t invent it. So all that we’re trying to do at Facebook is take the social graph that exists in the world and just map it out. Try to figure out all the connections people have in the world, the real connections. We’re not trying to make new connections. And once we have as accurate of a model, or approaching an accurate model of the social graph, then we can expose those connections in a way that our users our comfortable with their privacy settings, to a set of applications. Those applications can use those connections to help people share information more effectively. … The social graph is just this thing that exists in the the world and we just try to map it out.

In a November 2007 blog post, Tim Berners-Lee, who gave us the World Wide Web, lent his endorsement to the phrase:

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.

Since then, the use of the phrase has morphed and expanded. Today the term “social graph” regularly appears in news stories, presentations and marketing copy. Here are a few current examples:

  • In a Forbes article this week, Dan Woods of Evolved Technologist divides the “social graph” into two, one for business and one for every other relationship, and says the enterprise-level social network still needs to be built. He writes, “The enterprise social graph will likely outstrip the public social graph in both complexity and usefulness.”
  • This month Mashable writer Adam Ostrow described social media as “providing users with an identity and social graph that follows them across the web.”
  • An Internet advertising company markets itself this way: “Using patent-pending technology and social graph data, Media6Degrees provides major marketers with scalable ad campaigns that deliver a high return on investment.”
  • A recent ClickZ article by Kate Kaye says, “Facebook has observers wondering whether the company will transform its sprawling social graph into an advertising network.”
  • The Wikipedia entry on “social graph” says: “Concern has focused on the fact that Facebook’s social graph is owned by the company and is not shared with other services.”

So depending on who’s talking…

  • There is one social graph.
  • There are multiple social graphs for various uses.
  • The social graph has always existed.
  • The social graph was created by social networking sites.
  • The social graph is an abstract set of connections.
  • A social graph is a database that can be owned.
  • A social graph can be transformed into an ad network.
  • A social graph can follow people around.

Obviously there are some contradictions here. There appears to be just one point on which everyone agrees:

  • A social graph is not a graph.

My point of this rather tedious blog post is that nobody agrees what “social graph” means because it was never precisely defined by the company that coined it, Facebook. “Social graph” has become one of those vague phrases people use to sound smart.

Fortunately, we can now use it as a bullshit detector. The next time you see or hear someone use the phrase “social graph,” ask yourself, “Does this person really know what they’re talking about?”