Typing Social Links: Modeling Relations In On-Line Networks

On: October 6, 2008
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About Andrea Fiore
I am an amateur software designer and wannabe Internet researcher. I am generally interested in non-conventional approaches to software; in both its production and its usage practice. As graduation project for my MA in Media Design at Piet Zwart Institute (Rotterdam), I have been investigating web audiences analytics in relation with content personalization, behavioral marketing and web-based advertising. I am an expert in web-cookies and I try to devise tools and methods to better understand the economy behind them. Since few months, I contribute as a programmer to Digital Methods Initiative, a research group directed by Richard Rogers and based at UVA Amsterdam.


There is a good chance that most addicts to Mark Zuckerberg’s social gossip platform will easily recognize the modal window depicted down here. It’s what users are asked for when they click the option details accessible from the friends section of Facebook’s dashboard. Whether one of your friends is a member of your family, an ex lover, a school mate or somebody with whom you may have worked then years ago, Facebook wants to know it. Last but not least, it also want to provide you an option to state it publicly. Once a statement about a relation is ratified by the interested party, it is displayed in the respective friend listings.
Fairly enough for a service that claims to have more that 500 Millions users worldwide, Facebook seems to do its best to at least mimic the complexity of human relations. Yet the result is far from being elegant. A form filled with checkboxes and input fields, preaching you for details and hard facts, stinks too much of anti-terrorism data-mining and police investigations.

More important, as many other controversial web2.0 services do, Facebook is also doing its best to give users a feeling of complete control over the information they disclose through it. Beside the “how do you know X” form, the service has also introduced, back in December 2007, a friend grouping feature meant to reduce the burden of those who have lists of hundreds or even thousands of contacts. As justin Smiths of Inside Facebook does, I also expect this feature to eventually evolve in improved privacy options.

Is to this kind of awkwardness of contemporary on-line social networking software that Genevieve Bell seems to refer to, when she proposes to re-frame the whole debate over on-line self-representation by abandoning the terms privacy and security in favor of categories such as secrets and lies. Similarly, Danah Boyd discusses this problem by comparing on-line social space with off-line physical settings, where different “social scripts” are implicitly inscribed in different social contexts:

“Now, imagine a physical setting where you’re supposed to share part of your life simultaneously to your boss, your children, your spouse, your drinking buddy, your mother, your neighbors, etc.   The only way we handle this is through social scripts (this is what weddings are all about)[…] It’s not a matter of deceptions; it’s because you talk to your daughter differently than you talk to your colleagues.”

(Boyd D., 2006)

Weblogs as decentralized social networks

Although undoubtedly popular today, what Boyd calls egocentric social networks are just one among many possible ways to think at network arrangements. The blogosphere – and perhaps even part of the old fashioned  web made of static hypertext  – present at least two of the distinctive features mentioned in Boyd’s definition: they do “(2) articulate a list of other users [..bloggers] with whom […blog owners] share a connection” and obviously  allow to “(3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others”. Most blogs and website also feature some sort of “(1) public profile” in their about pages.

What prevent them to fit in Boyd’s definition, is ultimately the absence of a “bounded system”. Compared to what she refers as Social Networking Sites, Weblogs are in facts loosely structured and tend to produce more decentralized network arrangements. As extremely flexible publishing tools, blogs are appropriated for both individuals and organizations and can be used and adapted in a very wide range of textual practices. Ultimately, I can’t see any arguable reason why these characteristics should result “less social”.

Modeling egocentric relations in decentralized networks: FOAF and XFN

The possibility of labeling social links with a set of pre-defined relation-types has not been exclusively explored by Facebook.  At least two relatively mature web standards have been designed for the purpose of describing friend lists in machine readable formats. This formats are open and decentralized since they do not force their users to adopt a specific web publishing software or to open an account on a given service. The indexing and the search of this information is meant to be done through specialized crawlers and engines (Google already provides a similar service with the Social Graph API).

FOAF (Friend Of A Friend ) is a web format developed within the research field of semantic web and on-line ontologies. It consists of a web ontology suitable for describing relations among  both human and non human entities such as persons, groups and organizations, but also on-line accounts (data bodies), documents and projects. As stated in its specs, FOAF designers decided to drop some of the relations included in the first draft of the ontology (namely the relations Person:knowsWell->Person and Person:friendOf -> Person) and to limit them to vague Person:knows statements. Nevertheless, one could question the supposed scientific neutrality of the specific and ultimately its same imparciality. A FOAF:Person entity can be in facts characterized with a foaf:myersBriggs propriety, whose legal value can be one of the 16 types of personality described by the homonymous indicator. This implies the assumption that such psycological taxonomy about human personality is scientificaly reliable with resepct to others not supported.Although relatively  popular among programmers and semantic web enthusiasts, the lack of real-world implementations (beside geeks-only social networks like Advocato ) keeps FOAF still far from being a truly universal alternative to more centralized SNS platforms.

XFN (XHTML Friends Network ) is a second meta-language for social relations developed within the microformats community, an initiative presenting itself as the lowercase alternative to semantic web. One of the points of straight that has allowed it a relatively wide implementation within several web2.0 social software (including wordpress) is that it basically consists of a lightweight extension built on-top of simple HTML: XFN relies in facts on the rel attribute of the HREF tag (the HTML tag used to create hyperlinks). What this  vocabulary provides is a subset of link types suitable for describing professional relations (such as co-worker, colleague), proximity relations (co-resident, neighbor) or simply friendships relations (friend, acquaintance, contact).

It’s interesting to note that, even if in a different way, both the specs mentioned here keep all negatively connoted relations of the vocabulary. Although few integrations have been proposed to supply to this limits (see XEN and Mathew Fuller’s MEEF), it is important to precise that these are meant to be critical parodies and not serious improvements of XFN and FOAF vocabularies.

Conclusions: non user-centric prospectives

Although egocentric social networks constitute today an extremely prominent phenomenon worth to be investigated by both social sciences and media studies, the user-centric approach followed by Boyd simply does not cover exhaustively the entire category of on-line social networks. In order to consider a different prospective, one could perhaps consider the research of Govcom.org as an example of non user-centric approach to on-line social networks. Richard Rogers and Nortie Marres, while discussing the use of web links in the study of scientific controversies and public debates, define a social network as:

“a set of pages that acknowledge each other by way of hyperlinks, and which may have several things in common, such as geographical location, funding, political leaning, or the events in which they participate, et cetera, but not an issue”
(Rogers R. and Marres N., 2005)

This non user-centric approach, not only involves a more complex and sociologically grounded characterization of the typology of possible actors active within a social network ( including individuals or companies, but also  governmental or non governmental organizations). It also provides a richer way to read the linking relations among them. Hence, a further comparison may be introduced. While within egocentric SNS and user-centric  approaches, typing social links means categorizing the possible ways individuals relate to each other, within a issue-centric prospective linking relations assume very different connotations and suggest different taxonomies.  While reading the graphs generated through govcom.org’s software Issuecrawler, different arrangements of top level domains imply “different kind of debate states”  within a Issue Network (Rogers R., 2004 ). Consequently, this act of typing social networks connections  – dubbed by scholars “Hyperlink diplomacy” (see Rogers R. and Marres N., 2000 ) – becomes here an media analysists activity  aimed at identify patterns of discursive affiliation among different social groups, thus resulting in a quasi-taxonomy of linking styles (like “closed community”, “totem style”, “reciprocal”, etcetera) .

Although their arguable prominence in today’s web, It’s important for media scholars to avoid perpetrating in their theoretical research the same reductive models of the social implied by most of contemporary social software. As sustained here, moving away from the user can be a possible way towards a broader conceptualization of the social in on-line networks.


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