Give me back my social graph

“Social graph”

When something becomes popular, you have to give it a name. “Social networking sites.” “Crowd-sourcing.” “Collaborative filtering.” “User-generated content.”

“Social graph” is the new name for you, your friends, your coworkers, and everyone else you know, stored in a computer-manageable format. It’s how you know them and how you’re related to each other. And it’s coming to a web application near you.

Everyone is up on the social graph. Nick Carr says it’s Web 3.0 (but how is it different from “social network” in Web 2.0?). Facebook promises they’re committed to the “sanctity of the social graph.” Google, Six Apart, and Plaxo are all on board with the social graph.

But names get in the way of what we really mean. “Post-traumatic stress disorder.” “9/11.” “Users.” “Social graph.” If we called these things what they really are, they evoke very different reactions:

Post-traumatic stress disorder Shell shock
9/11 Fear
Users People
Social graph People I know
Social networking site People on a website
Crowd-sourcing Asking people
User-generated content Stuff people make
Collaborative filtering Popularity contest

The words “social graph” dehumanize you, your friends, your coworkers, and all the people you know. It’s as bad as the word “user” but now it’s not just you. It’s everybody lumped into a digital morass by two stale words. Your friendship of two decades becomes a database entry.

The social graph brings up a slew of privacy issues too. How can I control who or what can see my social graph? Can I stop other people from putting me in their social graph? How do I protect my social graph from impostors posing as me? I have two friends who hate each other; how can I keep them from knowing I’m still friends with both of them?

And where does the social graph end? Databases, videos, pictures, web sites, conferences, phone calls, emails, instant messaging, text messages… People I know from high school, college, work, parties, one night stands, trips to the bathroom… Things I buy, places I go, people I visit, drinks I drink…

All of this exacerbates my worries. We’re reducing our social relationships to computer-readable data, expressing the complexities of those relationships through computers that don’t understand human relationships, trusting the future of our social graphs to companies and applications that will protect them and use them only for good.

I shouldn’t be so down on the social graph. People will find great ways to take advantage of the social graph. New applications will spawn the next generation of Internet millionaires. Existing companies will struggle to understand then exploit this fertile ground.

But the benefits of the social graph are illusory. The real promise of the social graph is antisocial systems. More of treating people as data, more disregarding the privacy of personal information, more selecting of checkboxes to express your relationship between you and your friends but you can’t find the one that makes the most sense, more pissed off friends who can’t understand why you would talk with them face-to-face but won’t add them to your social graph.

And if the backbone of our next generation of social software is antisocial, we’re going to produce software and experiences that are antisocial too. It’s autistic software [pdf]. Yay.

So stop for a bit, talk to some people, and ask them what they want with their social graph. I’ll wager they don’t know what a social graph is. And if they don’t know what a social graph is, how can you design tools for them to manage and use their social graph?

One last thing… I have a question for all the companies who are turning me, everyone I know, and our relationships into bits of antisocial data:

Can I please have my friends back?