“Social network” or “social graph:” is there really a conceptual choice to be made?
September 22nd, 2007

Nick Carr’s post of the day got my attention. Nick’s attention was absorbed, at his turn, by a Dave Winer’s post about the etymology, meaning and uses of the term “social graph” in relation with the one of “social network,” a fact that seems to have spread hype, embarrassment and confusion altogether. I wanted to see why all the fuss, so I went to Dave’s post.

First of all, I guess I have to thank Dave Winer too… but for a different reason: which is hearing that I happen to belong to a 0,01 percentage of the population who didn’t blink while reading the term of “social graph,” as a sign of wonder. Instead, I was surprised to find out that the term raised wonder or hype among others. Now I know it’s about one’s perspective, meaning there’s a difference between the popular science and the “professional” science views. Dave explains it a bit funny, but very well when he gives the examples of how the people with ordinary knowledge and the more specifically educated ones envision a graph. By the way, which of them are you? Take a look:

The visual representation of a graph at the normal people — 99,99% of the population (after Dave):

Ordinary Graph

The visual representation of a graph at the more savvy people — 0,01% of the population (after Dave):

Social Network Graph

So, I think it’s a matter of epistemology and “conceptual luggage.” Doing some network analysis in school and also working with all kinds of “graphs” — lines, bars, pies, you name them — I saw the term of “social graph” as one included in the larger circle of the “social network” concept, as the idea of graphical representation of a specific network, depending on the real data.

So, I don’t see how the two terms should be equivalent to each other, since one is the abstract idea of network (the concept of “social network”) and the other is the visual form of the first (the term of “social graph” in general and then a specific social graph of a real or imagined network). The confusion, in my opinion is due to some lack of knowledge, depending on everyone’s background, but that can be always easily corrected, by studying a term. I believe the hype of the “social graph,” if any, can be linked to the general hype around social networking. I wish Dave would have given the link to that article mentioning the “social graph” for the first time, so I could see its context. People say many things and other people take some of what they say and make of it a whole category when they don’t know in what other category to place it. Which I’d conclude is the case of “social graph.”

Update: Tom Lord‘s comment to Nick Carr’s article is worthy of reading. He offers a “Social networking in a nutshell” theory with examples and he also gives plausible reasons for the recent hype around the “social graph,” which seems to be due to some social networking software undertakings by specific companies lately.

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