Circles of influence

This article on the Pinboard blog comes with the most credible of endorsements: At least four people that I know (who aren’t connected to each other as far as I know) have linked to it on Facebook/Google+/Twitter. In an odd way, the way that I found it shows the other side of the question that the article raises.

Firstly, I completely buy the argument that it advances: That the notion of the ‘social graph’ is a very limited one and it is stuck at the limit to which we are all machine-readable as individuals. On the other hand, I felt compelled to read it because a few influential people within my social graph said it was worthwhile.

Yet, for all of the shortcomings of the concept of ‘social graph’ as a means of mapping general relationships, particularly for marketing purposes…

“Google, for example, uses XFN as part of their Social Graph API. This defines a set of about twenty allowed relationships. (Facebook has a much more austere set: close_friendsacquaintancesrestricted, and the weaselly user_created).

But these common relationships turn out to be kind of slippery. To use XFN as my example, how do I decide if my cubicle mate is a friendacquaintance or just a contact? And if I call him my friend, should I interpret that in the northern California sense, or in in some kind of universal sense of friendship?”

… it’s still a useful heuristic for the narrower purposes of understanding personal influence. We need to first understand what it is to understand what social media tools are trying to achieve. They are trying to find ways in which they can make our relationships more machine readable. There is a lot of effort coming from social media platforms at Google+ and Facebook with a view to monetising our social graph.

So the Pinboard blog has identified a large hole in the strategies of Facebook and Google+. But unless you’re a shareholder, why should we bother about this?

I’d say we shouldn’t. What is of interest, though, is how we can use the tools that we’re getting for free (!) to achieve things.

In my line of work, the big question is how we understand (and exercise) influence. I think we can learn something about this from the concept of the social graph. Remember, at the start of this post, I said why I’d read that Pinboard article? Four people who influence me all linked to it. I think it was four. I can only name two now. But I’d noted the link, at that’s the important thing. It may even be the case that one of the people who linked to it is someone for whom I’d generally ignore their material. But that doesn’t matter.

I’m pretty sure that politicians and journalists respond to ideas and concepts in the same way.

So how does the concept of the social graph help here? For example, this is an old-ish app Facebook: The Friend Wheel. I’ve highlighted friend Dominic Campbell at random here, simply to illustrate that he knows a lot of people that I know (52) pm Facebook.

My personal friend-wheel. Click to enlarge.

This shows all of my Facebook friends and who is connected to who. On the top left-ish end, you’ll see people who are densely connected to each other – often with me as the connector. On the bottom right-ish, a lot of people who barely know anyone else from my circle.

Then I pulled up another old Facebook app – this time, Friend Sets. Using this, I picked five friends who I’ve got to know at different times of my life to see how they connect to each other:

I’ve picked these names at random, and I’m using a free app here. With a better, three-dimensional one, I’d be able to identify all of the different social circles I’m in. Personally, I’m connected to circles that broadly consist of….

  • family and their friends
  • old school / college friends, childhood friends, etc
  • people who I live/ have lived near, or shared a flat with
  • people I used to work with in different jobs & some of their friends
  • fellow UK Labour Party supporters
  • people I know from a village in Ireland that I visit regularly
  • people who are in my political ‘cell’ (humanist, internationalist, democratic-lefty, pro-EU) and their friends
  • people I’ve met in Northern Ireland’s political circles (I’ve taken an interest over recent years)
  • people who are active thinkers around social media and local/central government
  • people who were active in UK political blogging (2005-9 mainly)
  • people with a general interest in new media and politics
  • a very small handful of random unconnected people who don’t fit anywhere else (holidays etc)

The venn-diagram of that lot has a few crossovers. There are one or two interesting surprises in this (“How come you two know each other??”) LinkedIn is often even more surprising in this respect, but less generally interesting. And within those crossovers, there are often people who are well-respected in more than one sphere. . But as the Pinboard blog article says, this intelligence tells us very little that is useful about the thousands of two-way relationships that this represents.

I mention all of this as a prelude to a question I’m going to write about shortly: People may not have a useful social graph, but is there such a thing as a conversational graph?

I think that there is, and that it is a very valuable thing if we can identify it. I’ll be back with a posting on this shortly.

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