Saturday, February 2

Say goodbye to the value of your social graph

Google's released a new API that allows developers to harvest the 'social graph' - the relationships between people on the web - the links labelled 'friend', 'colleague', 'mother', between our individual online identities.

At the moment, there is no single social graph for the interweb. Instead, separate proprietary graphs exist on each of the major portals (Yahoo!, etc) and also on the major social networks (MySpace, Facebook, Bebo, LinkedIn, etc.). To a large extent, the value of these companies is tied up with the size of users graphed, the number of connections in those graphs, and the rate of growth in users and connections.

Because of the risks vs benefits involved, it seems unlikely that Google will be able to persuade players with high-value social graphs to open their data to the API very soon. Any player with a high-value social network risks contributing more value to its competitors than it receives by opening to the API. Google might be able to gain enough leverage to bring a majority in eventually.

If the industry adopts an open API for social graphing then it must also offer better tools to allow users to explicitly control what relationships are exposed, to whom, and to what level of detail. While the social graphs remain closed and proprietary the cost of unplanned exposure is still pretty low (though I continue to have a problem with the way LinkedIn exposes which other profiles have been viewed by the people who've been looking at my profile.) But if we move towards one shared social graph, it's going to be essential that you own and control it.

But the bigger problem for me is Google's habit of taking something of value (online storage, premium web-based email, calendaring, office suites and now social graphs) and making it free. Google can afford to do that while all its free services are supported and more by search ad revenue. But it really hurts the other companies in the same space. And one day, someone newer, faster and smarter will slip the search biz out from under Google the way it was slipped out from under Yahoo!. 

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