How useful is the social graph?

Listen to social media consultants for long enough and you will hear about something ethereal and ill-defined called “The Social Graph”. I’ve mentioned this in meetings myself and have seen participants’ eyes glaze over. My own search for a definition was pretty fruitless – Wikipedia doesn’t have an entry (so it must not actually exist!) – but I did find a nice post by Brad Fitzpaterick who defines the “social graph” as “the global mapping of everybody and how they’re related“.

So the social graph is an informal network of people you know – rather like you use tags to informally organise content into a folksonomy, the social graph lays out everyone you know. I think.

Dion Hinchcliffe’s image (above) provides a bit of clarity to the concept, but the reality is much harder to define.

Online, these informal ties and links are very powerful – your informal network is formalised through social networks such Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. This formal network allows you to, the theory goes, start to utilise it or, in plain speak, ask it questions. Again, the theory goes that the answers you get back will be more powerful and more relevant as they come from people you know and trust – rather than a faceless algorithm.

There are many smart people that totally get and definitely work hard to sell the idea of “the social graph” – Drew B lived without Google for a week, only using his Twitter account for searches while episode 6 of Media Hacks breathlessly declares that “Twitter is one of the best focus groups you could ever have.” Drew and Mitch are two of my favourite bloggers so this is by no means a slight against them.

However, whenever I see mention of the social graph, when people talk about “accessing my community” I cringe slightly. Because not everyone can access their social graphs. Not everyone’s network has been formalised online. Not everyone even has a network that can provide you with the answers you need.

Drew and Mitch are both fortunate enough to have impressively high profile online presences which means their social graphs are large and will contain a huge amount of knowledge. Other people, and indeed organizations, are not that lucky. Some may not be that connected full-stop, while others may have to wait for their informal, off-line networks to come online and be connected by whatever the social network du jour is.

And therein lies the rub – if you are going to try to utilise your social graph, you better have a social graph worth utilizing. If you want to use social media (not just Twitter) for a focus group, you better be able to connect with your core users.

Is the social graph useful? Of course – I would definitely prefer a recommendation from a friend who I grew up with over anyone or anything else. But you must be careful to not over estimate the power of this new approach to technology. Is the social graph the answer to your marketing dilemma? Probably not – that depends on your marketing dilemma.

Finally, for any person or organization wanting to access the mythical social graph, you must must must remember that, like all things in social media, it may be free, but it is very expensive. It takes time and effort to learn the tools and grow your presence on the various different platforms. It takes time to grow a following worth utilizing and it takes an ongoing commitment to keep that following fully engaged for you to see any long-term value.


In the comments, Joe Boughner notes that LinkedIn represents the best and worst of the social graph. LinkedIn teases you with stats on how impressively huge your network is but then consistently  refuses to answer any questions other than from people you already know. Reducing the need for LinkedIn in the first place and negating the raison d’etre of the social graph.

On Twitter, my former client, the truly brilliant and inspirational Peter Dorrington notes that the business intelligence and predictive analytics software vendor SAS has been using the social graph to help its clients counteract fraud. Very cool!


2 Responses to How useful is the social graph?

  1. Joe Boughner says:

    I think LinkedIn is a great example of the wonderful potential but frustrating reality of the social graph.

    LinkedIn tells me every day that I have more than 4,800 people in my graph (as defined in the image you posted – people that are 2nd degree connections). If you expand it to the 3rd degree, my ‘network’ consists of more than 425,000.

    That’s quite a resource. But unless I’m actively seeking a connection with someone (how many degrees am I separated from John Doe? Who do I know who could connect me?) there’s no really obvious way to leverage that network.

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