The Future of Social Networks on the Internet: The Need for Semantics

Stefan and I wrote an article entitled “The Future of Social Networks on the Internet: The Need for Semantics” for the IEEE Internet Computing magazine. It was published yesterday (1st November). You can read an extract and see a rendered copy below.

20071101f.png In the article, we describe how Jyri‘s idea of object-centered / object-oriented sociality not only provides meaning to social networks, but also defines an application area for the Semantic Web in terms of representation mechanisms for interconnecting people and objects across different social networks.

20071101g.png We also propose a social networking stack that would allow the reuse of one’s personal profile, social network connections and content-creation history (e.g, using FOAF and SIOC) across various sites and applications (there’s some obvious crossover with the OpenSocial People and Activities APIs here).

Anyway, here it is:

The Future of Social Networks on the Internet: The Need for Semantics

“I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names… It’s not just big names — it’s anyone. A native in a rain forest, a Tierra del Fuegan, an Eskimo. I am bound — you are bound — to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people.” — John Guare

Everyone on the Internet knows the buzzword social networking. Sites such as Friendster, Facebook, Orkut, LinkedIn, Bebo, and MySpace, as well as content-sharing sites that also offer social networking functionality (including YouTube, Flickr, Upcoming, del.icio.us, Last.fm, and 43 Things) have captured the attention of millions of users and millions of dollars from venture capitalists. Compete.com states that, as of November 2006, the 10 most popular domains accounted for about 40 percent of all page views on the Web, and nearly half of those views were from the social networking services (SNSs) MySpace and Facebook.

SNSs usually offer the same basic functionalities: network of friends listings (showing a person’s “inner circle”), person surfing, private messaging, discussion forums or communities, events management, blogging, commenting (sometimes as endorsements on people’s profiles), and media uploading. With such features, SNSs demonstrate how the Internet continues to better connect people for various social and professional purposes. Yet, fundamental problems with today’s SNSs block their potential to access the full range of available content and networked people online. A possible solution is to build semantic social networking into the fabric of the next-generation Internet itself — interconnecting both content and people in meaningful ways.

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I think this article is timely given the unveiling of OpenSocial these past few days (we managed to reference the then forthcoming API in time for a section about “Your Social Graph” on page 3). But as Uldis and Daniel Feygin pointed out on the SNP mailing list, while OpenSocial addresses social application portability and widget developers nicely, it seems to miss out on tackling the issues of social graph portability and cross-network identity links.

David Emery highlights this closed social network problem: “OpenSocial doesn’t solve this, but if it had it could be truly revolutionary; if Google had gone after opening up the social graph […] then Facebook would have become much more of an irrelevance – people could go to whatever site they wanted to use, and still preserve all the interactions with their friends (the bit that really matters).” Marc Canter says: “Me – I’m just sitting here, smiling and wondering about interop and whether all these platforms are really gonna open up their social graphs with unique identifiers. After waiting four years – who’s in a hurry?” And Bob Warfield says: “One of the biggest things will be portability of one’s social graph. Can I carry mine from one participating Social Network to the next? That’s a touchy business. […] Who will be first to write an app whose sole purpose is to carry your identity and Social Graph from one network to the next?” Of course, not everyone wants their graphs to be portable or linked together – there may be very good reasons for isolation, but if OpenSocial could allow people to choose to link or reuse their profile / connections across sites (or not), I think it would be a leap rather than a step in the right direction.

25 thoughts on “The Future of Social Networks on the Internet: The Need for Semantics

  1. John,

    You should take this concept into Reboot 10, replacing its academic presentation with a use case perspective. You touch on portable social networks for mobile populations and that interests me the most.

  2. John,
    I like your column, it nicely summarize the work and ideas I am currently only aware of from a distance even though sitting in the office next to yours 🙂

    I think that in order to achieve the interoperability at the content level as well as the envisioned social network stack for the semantic desktop, a very important aspect that you do not mention in your column is the common API for social networks. How do you think the recent Google Social can effect the idea of future social networks you envision? I can see that there are quite many social networks committing to this…

  3. Hi Tomas – an API is great, but I think it needs to be able to extend outside the social network itself (which as far as I know, OpenSocial does not do fully) – at the moment, you can use their API to access data for plugins and applications within the social network, but it’s not really for pushing data outside for use on other social networks…

    Facebook allow outsiders to query their data with the FQL language, so something like that that would work across networks would be nice (e.g. there’ve been some Facebook to FOAF converters leveraging this).

    We must meet after ISWC / CollaborateCom and have a discussion on this if you’re interested, since we’re not that far away from each other normally! Congrats on your article too…

  4. Hi John,

    I’m a Strategic Sourcing Recruiter searching for candidates using this Web 2.0 method; using social networking sites, solutions and ideas to find candidates.

    I’m challenged with proving that Web 2.0 methodology is a viable solution for our Recruiting strategy. In addition to that showing my tactical colleagues that they are to embrace Social Networking and adapt it into their everyday searching.

    Any advice you give would be much appreciated. I love the information on Object-Centered Sociality; it gives substance to the whole idea of social networking.

    Tangil http://cisco-jobs-tangils.blogspot.com

  5. Could VOIS.com become another Facebook?

    Since the advent of social networking sites in 1997, the phenomenon has taken the world by storm. Once called a passing fad social networking is now a thriving business, in 2006, alone it garnered over $6.5 billion in revenue, while the three biggest players, connected over 280 million subscribers in a way never known before to society. This form of connection has drawn the globe closer together than anyone ever predicted.

    Just a few years ago, MySpace.com, solely dominated the social networking site market with almost 80% of the social networking site market but now websites like Facebook entered the social networking site race becoming the 8th most viewed website in the U.S. according to web measuring traffic site Alexa.com. Facebook.com which originally started at Harvard University , later extended to Boston area schools and beyond has mystified many naysayer’s with its explosive growth over the last three years and an astounding asking price of $10-$15 billion dollars for the company. But who will be next?

    Who will carry the torch into the future?

    With the rapid growth of the likes of MySpace and Facebook the burning question on everyone’s tongue is who is next? As with any burgeoning field many newcomers will and go but only the strong and unique will survive. Already many in the field have stumbled, as indicated by their traffic rankings, including heavily funded Eons.com with its former Monster.com founder at the helm, Hooverspot.com and Boomj.com with its ridiculous Web 3.0 slogan. There are many possibilities but it is a dark horse coming fast into view and taking hold in the social networking site market at the global level that has us interested the website – Vois.com. Less than a year ago, this newest contender directed at 25 to 50 years olds graced the absolute bottom of the list with its website ranked at a dismal 5,000,000. With not so much as a squeak this rising star has come from the depths of anonymity growing an eye-popping 10,000% in less than one year to make itself known worldwide now sporting a recent web traffic ranking in the 5,000 range.

    Understanding the Market

    When people in the United States hear about Facebook and other services such as MySpace the widely held belief is that these websites are globally used and are as synonymous as Google or Yahoo in regards to having a global market presence. This idea is completely misguided. Now it is true that both of these social networking giants are geared to service the western industrialized cultures but when it comes to the markets of the future, the emerging markets, they have virtually no presence. The sites themselves are heavily Anglicized, and Facebook in particular has an extremely complicated web interface that eludes even those familiar with the language, making them virtually inaccessible in other parts of the world even where English is the main language.

    Our interest in Vois is global and geopolitical. Simply, Vois understands this lack of market service and is building its provision model on a global research concept developed by Goldman Sachs a few years ago. The concept is basically predicated on the belief that beginning now using current economic models and continuing those models over the next few decades will lead to a major paradigm shift in the world regarding nations who are current economic leaders like those being the USA and the other members of the G-7 and those who will become dominant in the world economy mainly the BRICs. In the Goldman research report Goldman highlights the fastest growing nations and has dubbed them with the two acronyms BRIC’s and N-11. BRIC standing for ( Brazil, R ussia, India and China) representing the fastest growing economies and N-11 or what are being called the Next-11 representing the next 11 countries to emerge as future important economies such as Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Turkey and Vietnam. This approach has already been implemented with some success with companies like Orkut, who has over 80% of the market share in Brazil and large holdings in India and Eastern Europe . Other providers such as Hi5 have the world as their focus and are making great strides in global market share while Facebook builds itself into a niche provider wholly unready to take on the world.

    A Growing Presence

    As Vois breaks new ground in the world market pursuing previously ignored demographics, they afford themselves the opportunity of tremendous growth unfettered by the giants such as Facebook and MySpace. While cultivating this new user base, Vois will also be able to monopolize on their business revenue strategies, creating an area of commerce that will make their site increasingly attractive to business and users the world over. This concept, dubbed sCommerce, allows the subscriber to promote themselves in both personal and a professional fashion while giving them the option of setting up shop on the site. This approach will allow business owners to target their market in a way never before allowing them to focus on interested groups of individuals while providing follow-up without having to commit to wasteful blanket campaigns that are typically the order of the day. This newfound border will allow Vois to explore new revenue models while provide a tremendous service for both their regular subscribers and business subscribers alike. With all this going on, rapid traffic growth to the site, we pose the question – is Vois the next Facebook, it sure looks like it but only time will tell….

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