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January 08, 2008

The "open" social graph on the horizon

by Charlene Li

The Data Portability Workgroup (DPW) announced today that Google, Plaxo -- and the big surprise -- Facebook, will be participating in discussion on how users can "access their friends and media across all the applications, social networking sites and widgets that implement the design into their systems."

This couldn't have come at a more perfect time, especially given the flap over Robert Scoble scraping Facebook (and note that he's also a part of the DPW).

A typical day for me includes dozens of email notifications from each of the following services: new "friends" on Facebook, "followers" on Twitter, "connections" on LinkedIn, "business connections" on Plaxo, and the latest that has put me over the edge, "trust contacts" on Spock. Social networking fatigue has finally hit me.

That's five services where my business connections find me. Five services that all require me to navigate from the email to their respective Web sites and confirm the relationship. And it's four services too many.

The reality is I have one social graph, and up to now, it's been pretty content hanging out, in its limited fashion, on LinkedIn. Even with the advent of Facebook, it's been pretty manageable. But the new reality is that business social networking has finally caught on, and the proliferation of niche "social networks" means that these five social networks will likely grow to 10, 20, who knows how many. And the worst part about it is I don't have the time, energy, or patience to manage all of these relationships, yet I know it's crucial.

This is insanity.

Here's an example. Josh Bernoff and I are friends, connected, etc. on virtually every social network. I should be able to state in one place that we are co-authors, and it would be replicated everywhere else. It doesn't matter where I state it, but once I say it, please please please don't make me say it again again and again. And please don't make me have to invite Josh each time we, or our extended networks, join a new service.

And the way to solve it is to give me back control over my social graph. If 2007 was the year of the open social application platform, then 2008, I believe, will be the year of the "open" social graph. There' s a reason why I put parentheses around "open" because it's a pretty loaded word. I don't think MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, et. al. will make their respective walled garden social graphs freely available for people to use outside of their own sites. But if they are smart, they will make it much, much easier for their members to leverage their expressed social graphs.

And that's the reason why I think Facebook has joined the Data Portability Workgroup. By joining the workgroup, they haven't committed themselves to opening up their social graph. I admit, this is a potentially a pipe dream because anyone who is in the position of power -- like MySpace, Facebook, or LinkedIn -- have little incentive to open up their social graph vaults for start-ups to exploit. But Facebook et. al. are smart, and know that unless they participate, they can't influence the outcome to of the open social graph to their benefit.

But I think there are players missing from the table -- communication portals, Yahoo!, Microsoft. and AOL, as well mobile service providers. This is because they own a substantial piece of the social graph as expressed nominally through emails, address books, instant messaging buddy lists, and SMS activities.

I wrote about this waaaay back in July 2004 in my first social networking piece for Forrester. This is what I wrote, and the accompanying graphic:

Users map their relationships with other people, either by personally inviting those individuals into the network, as with Friendster or LinkedIn, or by using software like Spoke Software to scan emails and instant messaging (IM). In the future, social networking software will also work with mobile carriers — eager to retain and monetize users — by importing call detail records to track the frequency and length of calls between social network members.

Relationship Mapping Will Tap Into Technologies To Make Maintenance Easy


From "Profiles: The Real Value Of Social Networks", July 15, 2004.

The idea is we already have social graphs that are expressed in the activities that we do every day -- the emails we send, calls we make, and meetings we have.

Facebook Beacon was an attempt at this, at least in the online sphere. And it shows how ladden this space is with privacy and transparency issues. That's going to be a core piece of the work ahead of the DPW, trying to figure out who has control over what, when, and how it can be monetized. At the core HAS to be user control and privacy, but up for debate is who ultimately "owns" the social data that's created, either explicitly or implicitly through our actions.

Now it's your turn -- let's get specific about what the open social graph means to us, and how we as users want to see it develop. After all, it's *your* social graph -- let's make sure that we have a seat at the negotiating table as well. Comment below, or email me your thoughts.


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» Social Charlene, SocialCisco from Changing Way
Charlene Li laments the proliferation of niche social networks and contrasts it with the reality of a single social graph. She hopes that the Data Portability cavalry will rescue us, and so do I. Talking of niche social networks, Cisco ha... [Read More]


Ryan Anderson

The social networking fatigue becomes especially evident when you start dealing with niche social networks like dopplr, upcoming, flickr and so on. Sure, most of those have a facebook plugin, but it still means finding my colleagues and asking their permission every time.

The one caution will be in segmenting our social graphs. I don't necessarily want my business acquaintances seeing photos of me at a party, and I'm sure most of my friends don't care about my thoughts on social media and interactive marketing. To this point, most haven't done a very good job of keeping business and personal networks separate, but it will be a necessity if that graph becomes portable.


Who knows how things will develop? Maybe we will witness a segregation we now see in software. Free software (not as in beer, but as in freedom) and commercial software.
We already have commercial social networks (facebook) and 'free' social networks (kaioo).
Maybe the open graph, as you note, will not be that open after all...

John McCrea


Great post! Clearly some of the most important stuff to work on in 2008.

Brij Singh

Charlene - how is this issue different from the late 90s issue of every website asking for detailed personal information to build personalized experience?

There has been many attempts to automate profile/personal information submission but every company has it's own twist to that. Is level of pain high enough to cause all web service operators to switch to a common solution? It's going to be evolutionary process.

Though it's an important debate but there is no clear consensus on how the commercial aspect will be shared in this opening up of social graph?

Will there be any "experience graph" overlaid on social graph? And vendors will get to tax the opening of that experience graph?

Thanks for sharing your insights.

Web 2.0 Asia

Social graph exchangeability is one of many promises XML made back in the 90's - now it's time we saw it in real life.

Tierra Montgomery

Social networking fatigue caused me to start deleting some of my accounts. I don't have the time nor the patience to check fifteen accounts when I get to work in the morning, but I have to because they can be possible networking opportunities. Being able to manage all sites (updating, posting articles, posting pictures, etc.) from one spot will be a much needed change. Ryan made a very interesting point about personal sites. My personal page had to be deleted for professional reasons. I have personal pictures of vacations and my home. I don't want a potential client to google my name and find info that I only share with friends and family. (I google potential clients and collaborators all the time)

I look forward to watching the trends and developments around the issue. As always thanks for the detailed and informative post.

Charlene Li

@Ryan: Agreed on the need to be able to segment my social graph, not just into work/personal buckets, but into work, home, school, church, bridge club, etc. I wrote about Facebook's new Friends List feature in December, http://blogs.forrester.com/charleneli/2007/12/facebook-friend.html

Blake Cahill


I was excited when I first read the news about Facebook joining DPW and like you am completed overwhelmed with the requests and management from the new and niche sites. As we speak I think I have nearly 30 or more unanswered request to connect in my personal email inbox.

I think that as corporations and brands are challenged with listening to the growing chorus of conversations in CGM -- individuals are just as challenged with managing their social networks, connections, and conversations. Maybe it's time for some B2C social media management tools and applications?

Blake Cahill
Visible Technologies


You have a very cool blog here…loved the content.
This is to all business networkers, here is a wonderful concept of accessing SN sites on your mobile. You can access Salesforce, Linkedin via mobile without internet, GPRS, EDGE or WAP. Many more other services are available like Google maps and Star bucks etc... Check it out: http://modazzle.com/cms/modazzleLp1.html?channel=CM&camp=LinkedIn19
Sign up is free...

matt ceniceros

I've been feeling this too. If only there was a relationship "chain" that you could carry with you. Like a charm bracelet that you could just attach different networks to-like an online identity clearing house.

Also, need an all-in-wonder card that can hold all my credit from gift cards.

Thanks, Charlene.


miro slodki

this Social Graph group/committee is taking on what will be viewed as a seminal point in the evolution of the social space.

many have commented on fatigue, segmentation of contacts and privacy as being the key components going forward
and I agree - the underlying question is to what extent do individuals own their databases and data trails - and to what extent are we prepared to give up some of that information for the sake of convenience, better service/experience etc......

The openness of the Social Graph will be a large and ongoing discussion in the coming years - as whatever the outcome - there will be a sizable segment of unhappy folks.

The entrenched will not want to give away their 'assets',
but everyone is in the same predicament - each is holding a knife to the other's throat

startups will be eager to adopt any open standard and if they are smart band together to gain critical mass against the bigger boys.
whittling away against them targeting specific communities - with focussed services/benefits.

I have stated elsewhere that Linked In IMO is currently a lame duck
FBook was bashed for Beacon - did users forgive and forget?
what of My Space - retooling itself to service the Boomers and cut the legs off of FBook.

and let's not forget about Inbox 2.0, and google

these will be some of the strategic calculations taking place during the debate and ultimately factor into the outcome.



Nice post, but your social would be more open if your post actually showed, rather than ignored trackbacks. Yesterday, I posted:
and the trackback hasn't shown up here yet.

Charlene Li

Andrew: First, thanks for the mention. Hmmm, trackbacks are turned on, but for some reason they aren't showing up. Thanks for the heads up -- I'll see what I can do.

Dario de Judicibus

I invite you to read World 2.0:



open means open, forget all the buckets and switches. if you don't want a picture of you at a party looking sloppy, don't look sloppy at a party and don't have your picture taken


Your copyrighted content has been stolen:


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