Semantic web believers including Tim Berners-Lee and Nova Spivack like to say that the social graph is part of their semantic world: the Giant Global Graph (GGG) as coined by Tim Berners-Lee. But the Giant Global Graph itself is like Dustin Hoffman’s autistic savant character Raymond Babbitt in the 1988 movie Rain Man. Raymond knew all about plane trips but couldn’t make sense of human relationships.
Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee uses the Social Graph meme to rebrand his semantic web efforts, writing in a blog post, “I called this graph the Semantic Web, but maybe it should have been Giant Global Graph!” Berners-Lee thinks there could be big payoff in adding a layer of meaning atop the documents of the World Wide Web:
So, if only we could express these relationships, such as my social graph, in a way that is above the level of documents, then we would get re-use. That’s just what the graph does for us. We have the technology — it is Semantic Web technology, starting with RDF OWL and SPARQL. Not magic bullets, but the tools which allow us to break free of the document layer. If a social network site uses a common format for expressing that I know Dan Brickley, then any other site or program (when access is allowed) can use that information to give me a better service. Un-manacled to specific documents.
But though Berners-Lee borrows social graph talk, he’s not really concerned with human relationships, but more about things that computers can understand, things like plane trips:
In the long term vision, thinking in terms of the graph rather than the web is critical to us making best use of the mobile web, the zoo of wildy differing devices which will give us access to the system. Then, when I book a flight it is the flight that interests me. Not the flight page on the travel site, or the flight page on the airline site, but the URI (issued by the airlines) of the flight itself. That’s what I will bookmark.
The semantic web has always been about computers taking on more processing for us, not about computers allowing us to be more human, which is where the social graph might more naturally aim.
Semantic web fans would like to suggest otherwise. Nova Spivack, founder of semantic web startup Radar Networks, as well wants to make everything into a semantic graph story. “The social graph is a subset of the semantic graph,” he told me when we talked about the Twine launch.
But just like social intelligence is not a subset of academic intelligence, social knowledge and understanding isn’t a subset of the semantic meaning that semantic web technologies like RDF and SPARQL are aimed at representing. Computers can easily record and manipulate information about people taking plane trips — just like Raymond Babbitt’s autistic savant. They can’t as easily collapse social meaning into something useful online.
Though a unified social graph would be an unquestionable win for Internet microcelebrities who need to manage relationships with 2,000 or more relatively undifferentiated fans, most people socialize online with relatively few people in very complex ways, ways that are not necessarily well served by the wished-for unified social graph, ways that can’t be fully represented by computers.
So while the semantic web — the GGG — may represent people insofar as they take plane trips, that doesn’t mean it has the social intelligence to represent the social graph in a useful way.