The GGG: For Plane Trips More than People


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.



I held out as long as I could to post this: Am I the only Savage Love reader who thought this article would be about something entirely different?

Nick Zadrozny

Hi Anne,

You have a very interesting take on the subject. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately since I am actually working on a site that would help users collect and map their larger social graph in one place, and access and reuse it however they like.

Most of the geeks that are interested in and talking about this stuff really are the sort that have a lot of different connections on a ton of different sites. But I agree that’s not really the case for the majority of internet users. I think you hit the nail on the head with what you said above, that, “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.”

Personally, as a geek, I’m thrilled with the idea of a unified graph just for simplicity of management. But not everyone deals with that problem. I’d love to hear any ideas you have on hypothetical use-cases.

In some ways I think the important distinction with making something human-relevant more than just machine-intelligible is to find easy and interesting ways to present information to humans. We humans are inherently good at pattern recognition, so how do we present these complex interactions in ways that are interesting and useful for the ‘normal’ user you posit?

(By the way, the app I’m working on is starting with this unified graph approach with an early emphasis on tie-ins to OpenSocial app writers, but we’re going to be looking for some early alpha testers in December if anyone here is interested. Just drop me a line: [email protected].)

Yihong Ding


TBL’s GGG could be understood in varied ways. In contrast to distinguishing social graphs from semantic graphs, I think of another, probably more interesting point in the GGG presentation: we are converting the current Web from the publisher-oriented point of view to the viewer-oriented point of view. And this is a key to the next generation web. Radar Networks’ Twine is an attempt (or maybe the first significant attempt) in this path, though it is currently less than complete satisfaction of fulfilling the goal.

Maybe you would like to watch my analysis of TBL’s GGG at:

— Yihong

Anne Zelenka

Hi Nova, thanks for the response. Yes, I know you can represent the relationships between people using the semantic web and make it machine understandable. I’m not pointing to what is technologically feasible but what makes sense in terms of how we try to accomplish things with computers and with networks of humans and computers.

I suspect that any kind of unified social graph would represent a lossy transformation of our relationship data online. The fact that I am friends with someone on two out of five different sites and friends with someone else on four out of those five sites means something.

I suppose I am arguing more against the idea of a unified social graph, however it is implemented, than against semantic web technologies to represent such a thing. But it seems to me semantic web approaches may be overreaching if they try to get into the question of what’s best for recording and processing the social graph — and they lead to problems, because social data needs humans involved in processing, that’s the social intelligence part.

On your last sentence, “the graph becomes… more easily navigated, imported by, searched, integrated with …” that’s a potential problem for any unification of the social graph because the social graph needs human processing not machine. We saw that when some service (can’t remember which right now) spammed all of people’s email contacts without permission.

Nova Spivack

Hi Anne, interesting article. I’ve blogged a response on my blog.

What I mean by “the semantic graph” is a network of interconnected people and other kinds of things, that is defined by an underlying ontology. It’s a graph because it encodes various different kinds of interconnected nodes and links, and its semantic because the meaning of the nodes and links is defined and can be looked up somewhere on the Web. A social network or any other kind of network could be implemented in the ordinary way, or using the Semantic Web. By using the Semantic Web, the graph becomes machine-understandable and thus more easily navigated, imported by, searched, integrated with, other applications.

Anne Zelenka

Chris, I liked Berners-Lee’s framing of the net vs. the web vs. the graph too. It’s a useful way of thinking about the next step.

But even if we can separate out the stuff about people from documents, we’re going to be left with a pale reflection of actual human relationships and — more important — dynamic relating over time. In contrast to representing human relating, representing plane trips or the other basic stuff of the semantic web is easy. I don’t think the semantic web and the social graph “projects” have at their center the same purpose.

Chris Brogan...

TBL’s post got my head around the concept better than others that I’d read to date. I think it’s clever how Berners-Lee talks about what information will be like when it’s not tied specifically to the document level. He said that it’ll be interesting when the stuff INSIDE the documents is how we organize instead of at the borders.

So to me, some of where this goes is understanding that the difference between social networks and the Social Graph is to say that social networks are containers, the way a .doc file is a container, but that the Social Graph is the stuff inside the container, just like poetry or tech specs can be what’s inside the .doc file.

If I’m dead wrong on the interpretation, let me dream a bit longer. Made for a bit of kitchen philosophy earlier today for me.

Thanks, Anne!

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