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What exactly is a social graph?

I am a retired IBM Distinguished Engineer. (My wife says that makes me an Extinguished Engineer.) So, you might guess that I am fairly comfortable with the technical side of social media, but there’s one thing I don’t like, which is that technical people like to make up new fancy words to describe what they make, even if no one knows what they mean. One of my biggest pet peeves is in Web Analytics, where we’ve got names for page views, impressions, e-mail opens, and who knows what else, when they all answer the question, “Did someone see what I did?” We make it really complicated to get that simple answer. My latest favorite term is the social graph.

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The social graph is the latest techie term for the labyrinth of connections in a social network. If you think about how social networks operate, you realize that you have a network of Facebook friends, and each of your friends has his or her own network, too. If you tried to map those connections, you’d realize that you are connected to everyone else in the network eventually, as long as you are willing to take enough hops. In LinkedIn, they make this explicit, showing you that you are a second- or third-level connection with someone else and they let you introduce yourself through your first level connections.

Facebook has the most extensive social graph, and marketers can use it to advertise in the streams of their fans, for example. The Bing search engine even shows you search results for products your friends “liked.” But one of the biggest limitations of the Facebook social graph is that it is proprietary.

Social graph theory is actually a term of social science term that talks about the relationships that people have with each other.  People. Not Facebook friends.

And that’s the big limitation of any of these social networks. People don’t own their own relationships. Facebook does. But people have a little joke that they pull on Facebook–they have relationships outside of Facebook. They have relationships through LinkedIn or Google+ or Twitter or e-mail or (God forbid) real life.

It is yet to be seen how the Facebook social graph differs from the actual social graph. Sometimes the social networks try to compensate for this. A few months ago, Facebook asked to mine my e-mail contacts to get me new LinkedIn connections. It did it really badly and ended up spamming a boatload of people that might have sent me an e-mail but that I really didn’t know.

What was really funny is that a lot of those distant relationships actually accepted my connection request.

And I realized that I don’t use any of these social networks the way most people do, because I accept every blessed request that comes way way, figuring that someone read my book or saw me speak or saw me on YouTube or was sent a link to this very blog post. Why should I refuse their request?

But what does that mean when it comes to my social graph?

Well, it likely makes the recommendations of my “friends” on Bing rather pointless. (It’s possible that it is pointless anyway, because just because a fellow social media speaker recommends a gas grill doesn’t mean I would like it.) It also means that the ad streams that run through my Facebook experience miss the mark far more than they hit it.

But would that be true if people got control of their own data and then allowed select advertisers to see the real social graph. No it wouldn’t (yet) show in-person interactions, but suppose you could combine all the social activity across all the online venues. And suppose I could sell acces to my full social graph for a price to advertisers?

It might sound like science fiction but it is not that difficult a technical problem. It’s just a question as to whether consumers or governments will force the proprietary social graphs to share, and to put people in charge of their own information. I expect it to happen. Will you as marketers be ready to bargain with consumers for access to their data, or are you depending on buying access from Facebook?

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is a Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also served as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website,, most recently as the Manager of Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He was a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research and is now a Senior Fellow of The Conference Board. A Certified Speaking Professional, Mike regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide

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