It's the graph, stupid! Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the World Wide Web, has published a much discussed post about the future "Internet of things." Yet he doesn't mean "things" in the real world, tagged and connected by the World Wide Web. He is talking about online objects (things and people) that are reminiscent of Bruce Sterling's "spimes." In line with the goals of the Social Network Portability community, Berners-Lee argues that individuals and objects as well as the connections between them are the key items on the web, rather than the pages or social networking sites that contain them: "So the Net and the Web may both be shaped as something mathematicians call a Graph, but they are at different levels. The Net links computers, the Web links documents."
One can interpret this as the second reformation of the Internet -- in the first one, users emancipated themselves from a closed set of service and content providers, realizing that they held the power of the web in their own hands. And now, online identities, objects, and connections detach themselves from the grid of the web that constrains their movements. Relationships are disenfranchised from the "container" in which they're held.
Berners-Lee writes: "Biologists are interested in proteins, drugs, genes. Businesspeople are interested in customers, products, sales. We are all interested in friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances. There is a lot of blogging about the strain, and total frustration that, while you have a set of friends, the Web is providing you with separate documents about your friends. One in facebook, one on linkedin, one in livejournal, one on advogato, and so on. The frustration that, when you join a photo site or a movie site or a travel site, you name it, you have to tell it who your friends are all over again. The separate Web sites, separate documents, are in fact about the same thing — but the system doesn't know it. (…) There are cries from the heart (e.g The Open Social Web Bill of Rights) for my friendship, that relationship to another person, to transcend documents and sites. (...) It's not the Social Network Sites that are interesting -- it is the Social Network itself. The Social Graph. The way I am connected, not the way my Web pages are connected. We can use the word Graph, now, to distinguish from Web."
"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 wildly 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. And whichever device I use to look up the bookmark, phone or office wall, it will access a situation-appropriate view of an integration of everything I know about that flight from different sources. The task of booking and taking the flight will involve many interactions. And all throughout them, that task and the flight will be primary things in my awareness, the websites involved will be secondary things, and the network and the devices tertiary."
Not everyone is happy about the term "graph." The most fervent rebuke stems from Dave Winer: "Before we talked about social graphs we called them social networks, and you know what -- they're exactly the same thing, and social network is a much less confusing term, so why don't we just stick with it? (Answer: we should, imho.) So if you don't want to sound like an idiot, call a social graph a social network and stand up for your right to understand technology, and make the techies actually do some useful stuff instead of making simple stuff sound complicated." Robert Scoble, on the other hand, points out that your social network is who you know, while your social graph is who you're connected to based on interests, location, work, etc.: "The Social Graph is NOT my social network," Scoble writes, "My Social Network is my friends list. But the Social Graph shows a LOT more than that."
Berners-Lee would agree with that. For him, the Giant Global Graph is the natural evolution of networking: from computer (net) to documents (web) to things (and friends). Call it Web 3.0, the Semantic Web, the Open Social Web, the Hyper-Social Network, or the Giant Global Graph -- the idea isn't really new, but it appears as if this paradigm is slowly becoming mainstream thinking. As the Global Graph, or whatever you want to call it, is replacing the traditional World Wide Web, new players will want to influence its composition, as they did with hyperlinks and traffic boosting mechanisms on the "old" web. Will we soon see "graph designers"?
Tim Leberecht is the CMO of frog and the publisher of design mind.