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The graph raid

The thing about members’ clubs–the original social networks–is that they’re really only as good as their members. You can put all the effort you like into a shiny new cocktail bar, book the best DJs, and do all the other flim-flam that represents the club’s “content” but one day, the cool crowd will go somewhere else. As club proprietor, you’ll either adapt, find a new cool crowd, find a non-cool crowd, pivot your product, cook better food, or just fade away and die.

And really, there’s nothing that much different about online social networks. The first time I ever saw Facebook, I was struck by one immediate thought. “This gets all its value because my friends are in it,” I said to Tom, my guide. “If they weren’t there it wouldn’t be very interesting, and I’d try to invite them if I could.”

Surely, I mused, if it were possible to document, label and then release every one of those social nodes and links, some other bugger could come along at any point and recreate that really valuable bit–the network–adding new bells, whistles, shiny cocktail bars and so on, and they’d be the new Facebook. I expected, therefore, that sheltering any member’s personal network (or social graph, as it’s often called) from view would be of paramount importance in defending one’s business. You wouldn’t expect a members’ club to open its membership lists to the world, let alone their personal relationships between each other, would you? The invites would come thick and fast to the best connected, to the social movers, to those most likely to bring friends, followers, call them what you will to the new shiny place.

A couple of years ago I devised a way of doing such a thing myself: purely for my own amusement, as you may have already noticed I don’t make a habit of executing billion-pound self-enriching schemes. (Note for 2011 New Year resolutions, there…)

Because those membership details aren’t as locked down as one might think. So much value in networks like Twitter comes from riffing on the relationships in that big soup between friends, their friends and the Great Unknown that it would be self-defeating if it were all a great big secret.

All that’s needed would be the permission of users to let The New Shiny Network see their graph, and we’d have this type of network replication happening. Seed this with a bit of targeted promotion (exclusive, limited invites and all the other tempting gubbins) to highly-networked power users and away you go–you’ve got the beginnings of a compelling user base, and all you have to do is be a bit Shinier and Newer than the Old Shiny Network. And somehow manage to stay ahead…

Twice in recent weeks I’ve joined new networks (today’s stream of Quora linkage alerts triggered this post tonight) that had one thing in common–they asked for existing social graph access, and then went about recreating friend/follow type relationships based on that graph. And that’s what I’m (perhaps slightly dramatically) calling out as a “graph raid”.

The “product” on offer in the new network may vary–in Quora’s case it’s something similar to Yahoo Answers–at first. But get yourself hundreds of thousands of members, who’ve all compliantly agreed to tell you about their existing networks, and you can do what the hell you like. I’m fully expecting new features to come thick and fast–make no doubt about it, this is what the birth of a new Twitter or Facebook will look like. Will Quora make it to the big time? I have absolutely no idea. That’s all about the quality of execution. But I strongly suspect that its heavy focus on answering questions may look rather different in a year’s time.

So are we being duped a little when these new networks pop up? Is something being taken away with our social graph, to our detriment? I don’t think so. I can see the way that this type of Phoenix network–rising from the ashes of the last one–may actually be rather healthy. It’s what gives us the new cool club, the one where the other early adopters go. Before the spammers and the celebs pile in. Where we get another go at drawing up friend boundaries. A fresh start. New conversations. A place that reminds us of how the old one used to be, before it went stale.

And we all like a bit of new and shiny, now don’t we?

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7 Responses

  1. Sam Sethi says:

    We have all worked hard to build our social graph layer on Facebook/Twitter but now comes the interest graph layer. Vertical niche networks that build on top of our social graph by quickly replicating the work we did over the lat few years. Quora is an good example of a new socnet based on an interest graph in this case the Q&A niche.

  2. I love your love of the shiny and new, but forgive my happiness to settle for merely shiny.

    I think the idea of applying your ‘social graph’ in a new network makes total sense, but would probably be happy for Facebook (even more than Twitter) to remain my ‘core’. It constitutes the people I actually know and – mostly – like.

    Then these parasitic networks (Quora, Instagram – what else?) don’t necessarily need to replace, Phoenix-like, my core! They can grow on it, and then can grow beyond it, with new ‘friends’ joining my secondary networks depending on the vertical niche (as Sam suggests). So, trivia-geek-mavens for Quora or snappers-extraordinaires to be my Instagram playmates.

    The result would be – as I find myself tripping over and again lately – a ‘friend layer’, which helps me seed new ‘vertical’ networks, and filter the ‘Great Beyond’ using that most fundamental of human qualities: the trust and recognition I have invested in my ‘core’ network.

    For these reasons, I hope Facebook lives forever, even when the ‘cool’ people move on.

    Lovely post, thanks Paul.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I am being a little mischievous, of course. If not downright conspiratorial.

    It’s perfectly possible that social graphs can continue to be social graphs, and interest graphs and the like can be built on top of them. But if you were able to get hold of the basic plumbing information that might allow your layered-on network to supplant the original? If you had even a 1% of chance of being the next £10bn business? You’d have a go, wouldn’t you? (I would.)

    It’s those attempts to lever out of the ‘interest’ space and into the underlying social space that I’m looking for. Watch out for boring old questions being replaced by fluffy kitten apps. That’s all I’m saying… I’m keeping an eye on them :)

  4. a) I’m liking where you’re new year’s resolution is going here. A lot.

    b) as soon as you add in the fluffy kitten factor, it’s all just too clear you’re right!

    Perhaps the trick of holding onto the social graph might be for the likes of Facebook not to hold on too tightly, after all. This might interrupt its investors’ monetisation plans (so that $10bn becomes an order of magnitude less), but preserve its long-term existence.

    And as for your fluffy kitten network – where do I sign up?

  5. […] They are taking the social graph to the next level, adding the what to the who.Paul Clarke wrote a great post about this yesterday (which you must read) where he points out that services such as this are akin […]

  6. […] (Paul Clarke covers this issue nicely on his blog.) […]

  7. […] Quora. A kind of question and answer forum.  It’s neatest trick is that it encourages you to re-produce your social graph from Twitter.  Ready made followers and people you probably already ask questions of to […]

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