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The Business of the Social Graph

One issue that I’ve been paying close attention to is the rise of the ‘portable social graph‘, which I’ll define as the ability to extract metadata about who you connect with online – both listing your ‘friends’ and contacts, and potentially doing a traffic analysis on the communication within this network.

Combined with a ‘portable attention graph‘ which begins to map what you look at online and gather similar metadata about your individual behaviors, new technologies offer unparalleled opportunities to do useful (and highly valuable – very highly valuable) behavioral mapping and targeting.

Now these emerging tools have value to me as a web user, to be sure. They allow strong recommendation engines, targeted content (including advertising), and allow me to function better in an economy where attention is a scarce commodity.

The problem of course, is that to get these things, you have to trade away your privacy.

Privacy is an issue which is mentioned in each and every discussion on portable graphs. And yet, no one seems to be devising strong business or technical standards to ensure that privacy.

Today Facebook announced that it would – for a fee – allow companies to selectively target Facebook users for ad campaigns, polls, surveys, etc. None of the targeting mentioned in the UK Telegraph article is derived from graph data; but given that they aren’t dumb, it’s obvious that someone at Facebook is working on tools that will allow this.

As as Facebook Connect becomes one of the de facto identities on the web, other website operators will certainly be unwitting participants in this.

As an industry, we need to get our act together and build privacy into the infrastructure. We can’t assume that we can tack it on later in any kind of a meaningful way.

Today, to my knowledge, we aren’t.