Will Facebook Be the Next CompuServe?

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The founder of Pinboard, which bills itself as the social bookmarking site for introverts, fired a fascinating shot across the bow of just about every social network in the world. Maciej Ceglowski took aim at what people in Silicon Valley call "the social graph."

The social graph is shorthand for the idea that people's relationships can be represented as a series of nodes connected together by defined relationships known as edges. Why would you want to do this? Ceglowski explains:

We nerds love graphs because they are easy to represent in a computer and there is a vast literature on how to do useful things with them. When you ask Google for directions from Detroit to Redwood City, for example, you're interacting with a graph that represents the US road network. The same principle applies any time a site tells you people who bought object X might also be interested in book Y.

In other words, you want the graph because then you can apply the extant math to extract value from the network. The same types of algorithms that can recommend a book to you can be used to recommend friends and products. 

But the problem, Ceglowski demonstrates, is those bedeviled details, particularly in dealing with the edges (i.e. relationships). 

And then there's the question of how to describe the more complicated relationships that human beings have. Maybe my friend Bill is a little abrasive if he starts drinking, but wonderful with kids - how do I mark that? Dawn and I go out sometimes to kvetch over coffee, but I can't really tell if she and I would stay friends if we didn't work together. I'd like to be better friends with Pat. Alex is my AA sponsor. Just how many kinds of edges are in this thing?

Lest you think that these problems are confined to relationships that *you* don't have, Ceglowski has a response for that, too. "This is supposed to be a canonical representation of human relationships," he wrote. "But it only takes five minutes of reading the existing standards to see that they're completely inadequate."

In fact, he argues that the more realistic we make the relationships in the social graph, the more humans will see how inadequate they are. He compares the phenomenon to the well-known "uncanny valley" for computer-generated humans in which the more a robot or CGI person looks like a real person, the creepier it gets. "As the model becomes more expressive, we really start to notice the places where it fails," he concluded.

This might seem like tech insider baseball, but what it would mean is that the more Facebook or Google's social graph start to look like the mental map of the relationships you have in your head, the less you'll like using social networks. In other words, the better their model gets, the worse it would do as a product.

That leads Ceglowski, who is clearly making a lot of friends in Silicon Valley, to wonder if the semi-closed social networks will end up not as the future, but as the past. Facebook as the new AOL, not the next big thing.

Right now the social networking sites occupy a similar position to CompuServe, Prodigy, or AOL in the mid 90's. At that time each company was trying to figure out how to become a mass-market gateway to the Internet. Looking back now, their early attempts look ridiculous and doomed to failure, for we have seen the Web, and we have tasted of the blogroll and the lolcat and found that they were good.

But at the time no one knew what it would feel like to have a big global network. We were all waiting for the Information Superhighway to arrive in our TV set, and meanwhile these big sites were trying to design an online experience from the ground up. Thank God we left ourselves the freedom to blunder into the series of fortuitous decisions that gave us the Web.

Via Bobbie Johnson

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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