Social Models

There has been a lot written about the kind of ‘social’ graphs prevelant on the internet. I am not adding any great new information, and readers are advised to check out the following posts:

Here, however, I am including this discussion mostly for completion sake. But, I also think that the discussion is valuable to point out the key differences between the kind of social models, as well as understand the history behind their evolution.

The two main types of social models under consideration are:
1. Friendship (the non-directional graph)
2. Follower (directional graph)

The original social model of friendship started primarily with sites like friendster. However, it wasn’t until the advent of MySpace that it really took hold. Facebook, of course, took it to a whole new level. The model primarily involved a handshake element. i.e. if I have to become your friend, you must also be my friend. Although this was geared more towards privacy, it meant that the field was automatically somewhat limited and constrained by the intersection of the interests of the two people involved. If only one of them was interested in knowing about the other, the model wouldn’t work. For example, I am interested in being a friend of Obama, but I don’t think he cares (at least not at present). Thus, this kind of model results in a true ‘social’ graph. If I am not socially connected to another person, this graph will not take hold.

The follower model got rid of this barrier by allowing anyone to follow anyone else. Now, I can follow Obama, and he doesn’t have to follow me. This way, his ‘inbox’ is not cluttered by my updates. It is arguable that twitter’s main innovation has been the creation of the follower model and the subsequent choices with regards to privacy in keeping those updates public, by default.

The upshot of the follower model is that it ends up creating not a truly social graph, but more of an interest graph. Now I can follow people based on my interests, and I don’t have to know them socially. The beauty of this method is that I am now in control of my interests, and am free to follow anyone who is speaking about things that might satisfy my interests.

The follower model has taken hold in all verticals where new products are emerging to let people share their opinions about any topic, and for other people to follow these opinions. In each case, the person who is following can make the decisions to un-follow the person, or follow new people. This provides a great sense of control to the user, and lightens the burden of application developers to suggest better more interesting content. Because users can now simply follow other users to discover new content, application developers can concentrate on developing tools to allow discovery of people to follow, and not necessarily content.

However, the friendship model is still relevant in cases where we care less about interest, and more about social engagement driven by already established norms. For example, LinkedIn still follows this model, and it makes sense for their product. I must know the other person in order to be connected on LinkedIn so that I can then use that connection to find better opportunities later, find good candidates, etc. Also, once the friendship model takes hold, it’s much more difficult to break since noone wants to break those social connections when they are backed by real-world connections. So, this network becomes much more powerful, and can only grow.

So, both models have their place, but it depends on the product how best to use the models. I have seen hybrid models where you can follow users, but can form stronger bindings based on friendships. Facebook seems to be moving to this system as well with the recent addition of their “Subscribe” functionality, where a user can subscribe to another user’s public updates (twitter or Google+ anyone?).

What do you guys think?

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