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Giant Global Graph

Submitted by timbl on Wed, 2007-11-21 18:45. ::


Well, it has been a long time since my last post here. So many topics, so little time. Some talks, a couple of Design Issues articles, but no blog posts. To dissipate the worry of expectation of quality, I resolve to lower the bar. More about what I had for breakfast.

So The Graph word has been creeping in. BradFitz talks of the Social Graph as does Alex Iskold, who discusses social graphs and network theory in general, points out that users want to own their own social graphs. He alo points out that examples of graphs are the Internet and the Web. So what's with the Graph word?

Maybe it is because Net and Web have been used. For perfectly good things .. but different things.

The Net we normally use as short for Internet, which is the International Information Infrastructure. Al Gore promoted the National Information Infrastructure (NII) presumably as a political pragma at the time, but clearly it became International. So let's call it III. Let's think about the Net now as an invention which made life simpler and more powerful. It made it simpler because of having to navigate phone lines from one computer to the next,you could write programs as though the net were just one big cloud, where messages went in at your computer and came out at the destination one. The realization was, "It isn't the cables, it is the computers which are interesting". The Net was designed to allow the computers to be seen without having
to see the cables.

Simpler, more powerful. Obvious, really.

Programmers could write at a more abstract level. Also, there was re-use of the connections, in that, as the packets flowed, a cable which may have been laid for one purpose now got co-opted for all kinds of uses which the original users didn't dream of. And users of the Net, the III, found that they could connect to all kinds of computers which had been hooked up for various reasons, sometimes now forgotten. So the new abstraction gave us more power, and added value by enabling re-use.

The word Web we normally use as short for World Wide Web. The WWW increases the power we have as users again. The realization was "It isn't the computers, but the documents which are interesting". Now you could browse around a sea of documents without having to worry about which computer they were stored on. Simpler, more powerful. Obvious, really.

Also, it allowed unexpected re-use. People would put a document on the web for one reason, but it would end up being found by people using it in completely different ways. Two delights drove the Web: one of being told by a stranger your Web page has saved their day, and the other of discovering just the information you need and for which you couldn't imagine someone having actually had the motivation to provide it.

So the Net and the Web may both be shaped as something mathematicians call a Graph, but they are at different levels. The Net links computers, the Web links documents.

Now, people are making another mental move. There is realization now, "It's not the documents, it is the things they are about which are important". Obvious, really.

Biologists are interested in proteins, drugs, genes. Businesspeople are interested in customers, products, sales. We are all interested in friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances. There is a lot of blogging about the strain, and total frustration that, while you have a set of friends, the Web is providing you with separate documents about your friends. One in facebook, one on linkedin, one in livejournal, one on advogato, and so on. The frustration that, when you join a photo site or a movie site or a travel site, you name it, you have to tell it who your friends are all over again. The separate Web sites, separate documents, are in fact about the same thing -- but the system doesn't know it.

There are cries from the heart (e.g The Open Social Web Bill of Rights) for my friendship, that relationship to another person, to transcend documents and sites. There is a "Social Network Portability" community. Its not the Social Network Sites that are interesting -- it is the Social Network itself. The Social Graph. The way I am connected, not the way my Web pages are connected.

We can use the word Graph, now, to distinguish from Web.

I called this graph the Semantic Web, but maybe it should have been Giant Global Graph! Any worse than WWWW? ;-)   Not the "Semantic Web" term has been established for a long time, I'm not proposing to change it.  But let's think about the graph which it is.  (Footnote: "Graph" also happens to be the word the RDF specifications use, but that is by the way. While an XML parser creates a DOM tree, an RDF parser creates an RDF graph in memory.)

So, if only we could express these relationships, such as my social graph, in a way that is above the level of documents, then we would get re-use. That's just what the graph does for us. We have the technology -- it is Semantic Web technology, starting with RDF OWL and SPARQL.  Not magic bullets, but the tools which allow us to break free of the document layer. If a social network site uses a common format for expressing that I know Dan Brickley, then any other site or program (when access is allowed) can use that information to give me a better service. Un-manacled to specific documents.

I express my network in a FOAF file, and that is a start of the revolution. I blogged on FOAF files earlier, before the major open SNS angst started. The data in a FOAF file can be read by other applications. Photo-sharing, travel sites, sites which accept your input because you are a part of the graph.

The less inviting side of sharing is losing some control. Indeed, at each layer --- Net, Web, or Graph --- we have ceded some control for greater benefits.

People running Internet systems had to let their computer be used for forwarding other people's packets, and connecting new applications they had no control over. People making web sites sometimes tried to legally prevent others from linking into the site, as they wanted complete control of the user experience, and they would not link out as they did not want people to escape. Until after a few months they realized how the web works. And the re-use kicked in. And the payoff started blowing people's minds.

Letting your data connect to other people's data is a bit about letting go in that sense. It is still not about giving to people data which they don't have a right to. It is about letting it be connected to data from peer sites. It is about letting it be joined to data from other applications.

It is about getting excited about connections, rather than nervous.


In the short, what-can-I-code-up-this-afternoon-to-fix-this term, it is about other sites following the lead of my.opera.com, livejournal, advogato, and so on (list) also exporting a public RDF URI for their members, with what information the person would like to share.Right now, this blog re-uses the FOAF data linked to us to fight spam.

In the long term vision, thinking in terms of the graph rather than the web is critical to us making best use of the mobile web, the zoo of wildy differing devices which will give us access to the system. Then, when I book a flight it is the flight that interests me. Not the flight page on the travel site, or the flight page on the airline site, but the URI (issued by the airlines) of the flight itself. That's what I will bookmark. And whichever device I use to look up the bookmark, phone or office wall, it will access a situation-appropriate view of an integration of everything I know about that flight from different sources. The task of booking and taking the flight will involve many interactions. And all throughout them, that task and the flight will be primary things in my awareness, the websites involved will be secondary things, and the network and the devices tertiary.


I'll be thinking in the graph. My flights. My friends. Things in my life. My breakfast. What was that? Oh, yogourt, granola, nuts, and fresh fruit, since you ask.