April 16, 2008

Explaining the Granular Social Network

This post on Granular Social Networks has been years in the making and is a follow-up to one I previously made in January 2005 on Granular Social Networks as a concept I had been presenting and talking about for quite some time at that point. In the past few years it has floated in and out of my presentations, but is quite often mentioned when the problems of much of the current social networking ideology comes up. Most of the social networking tools and services assume we are broadline friends with people we connect to, even when we are just "contacts" or other less than "friend" labels. The interest we have in others (and others in us) is rarely 100 percent and even rarer is that this 100 percent interest and appreciation is equal in both directions (I have yet to run across this in any pairing of people, but I am open to the option that it exists somewhere).

Social Tools Need to Embrace Granularity

What we have is partial likes in others and their interests and offerings. Our social tools have yet to grasp this and the few that do have only taken small steps to get there (I am rather impressed with Jaiku and their granular listening capability for their feed aggregation, which should be the starting point for all feed aggregators). Part of grasping the problem is a lack of quickly understanding the complexity, which leads to deconstructing and getting to two variables: 1) people (their identities online and their personas on various services) and 2) interests. These two elements and their combinations can (hopefully) be seen in the quick annotated video of one of my slides I have been using in presentations and workshops lately.

Showing Granular Social Network

Granular Social Network from Thomas Vander Wal on Vimeo.

The Granular Social Network begins with one person, lets take the self, and the various interest we have. In the example I am using just five elements of interest (work, music, movies, food, and biking). These are interest we have and share information about that we create or find. This sharing may be on one service or across many services and digital environments. The interests are taken as a whole as they make up our interests (most of us have more interests than five and we have various degrees of interest, but I am leaving that out for the sake of simplicity).

Connections with Others

Our digital social lives contain our interests, but as it is social it contains other people who are our contacts (friends is presumptive and gets in the way of understanding). These contacts have and share some interests in common with us. But, rarely do the share all of the same interest, let alone share the same perspective on these interests.

Mapping Interests with Contacts

But, we see when we map the interests across just six contacts that this lack of fully compatible interests makes things a wee bit more complicated than just a simple broadline friend. Even Facebook and their touted social graph does not come close to grasping this granularity as it is still a clumsy tool for sharing, finding, claiming, and capturing this granularity. If we think about trying a new service that we enjoy around music we can not easily group and capture then try to identify the people we are connected to on that new service from a service like Facebook, but using another service focussed on that interest area it could be a little easier.

When we start mapping our own interest back to the interest that other have quickly see that it is even more complicated. We may not have the same reciprocal interest in the same thing or same perception or context as the people we connect to. I illustrate with the first contact in yellow that we have interest in what they share about work or their interest in work, even though they are not stating or sharing that information publicly or even in selective social means. We may e-mail, chat in IM or talk face to face about work and would like to work with them in some manner. We want to follow what they share and share with them in a closer manner and that is what this visual relationship intends to mean. As we move across the connections we see that the reciprocal relationships are not always consistent. We do not always want to listen to all those who are sharing things, with use or the social collective in a service or even across services.

Focus On One Interest

Taking the complexity and noise out of the visualization the focus is placed on just music. We can easily see that there are four of our six contacts that have interest in music and are sharing their interest out. But, for various reasons we only have interests in what two of the four contacts share out. This relationship is not capturing what interest our contacts have in what we are sharing, it only captures what they share out.

Moving Social Connections Forward

Grasping this as a relatively simple representation of Granular Social Networks allows for us to begin to think about the social tools we are building. They need to start accounting for our granular interests. The Facebook groups as well as listserves and other group lists need to grasp the nature of individuals interests and provide the means to explicitly or implicitly start to understand and use these as filter options over time. When we are discussing portable social networks this understanding has be understood and the move toward embracing this understanding taken forward and enabled in the tools we build. The portable social network as well as social graph begin to have a really good value when the who is tied with what and why of interest. We are not there yet and I have rarely seen or heard these elements mentioned in the discussions.

One area of social tools where I see this value beginning to surface in through tagging for individuals to start to state (personally I see this as a private or closed declaration that only the person tagging see with the option of sharing with the person being tagged, or at least have this capability) the reasons for interest. But, when I look at tools like Last.fm I am not seeing this really taking off and I hear people talking about not fully understanding tagging as as it sometimes narrows the interest too narrowly. It is all an area for exploration and growth in understanding, but digital social tools, for them to have more value for following and filtering the flows in more manageable ways need to more in grasping this more granular understanding of social interaction between people in a digital space.


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