Posted on November 24th, 2008 by Neil Crosby. Filed under Blog Posts.
There has been a lot of talk recently of The Social Graph, the amorphous network of links on the web that define who we are and how we’re connected to each other. In this post though, I’m going to mostly ignore the social aspect of The Social Graph and instead look at the personal portion of the social graph – how the various profiles which we all have across the internet link together to create one single überprofile. After all, this is the building block that needs to be put in place before you can even start to think about how people link to each other across sites.
The standard way to link the ownership of two pages to the same person is for each of them to connect to the other with a rel=”me” link. The good news here is that most social sites on the web add this attribute automatically when you add a link to your profile page. So, if you linked to your twitter account from your flickr account and vice-a-versa then a relationship-bot would be able to determine that both profiles were owned by the same person. On the face of it, this is all pretty simple stuff.
The problem comes when you realise that reciprocation is necessary in order to have confidence in the validity of a link marked up with a rel=”me” attribute. To put it another way, if I were to link to Tantek’s homepage with a link containing a rel=”me” attribute that wouldn’t mean that it should be taken on trust that I was Tantek. After all, it’s blatently obvious that I’m not.
So why is requiring reciprocation a problem?
Well, most people don’t create these reciprocating links from their sites. Lets take an average internet user – for argument’s sake we’ll call him Simon Willison. He uses the web most days, and has profiles on quite a few sites. On most of those sites he’s linked back to his own site, because he knows that it’s good to let people find him. What he hasn’t done is link back to those third party profiles from his own site. What this means is that all those nice connecting links from his external profiles are sitting there unable to be relied on because he hasn’t confirmed them with a link back.
Simon isn’t alone on this either. Pulling a few names out of the bag of people I regularly bump into, the same is true for Matt Harris, David Thompson and pretty much anyone else I can think of. Even The Littlest Webdev and Jonty Wareing, whose sites literally only link out to their profiles on other sites don’t use rel=”me” to show that they are linking to other portions of their online identity.
In fact, the only people I know who are using rel=”me” (other than me) on their own personal websites are those who are heavily entrenched in the microformats community. Drew Mclellan is using them on his site, as are Ben Ward and Frances Berriman on their sites.
Actually, that’s a lie. Whilst looking around for people using rel=”me”, I did find one other person using it – Robert Lee-Cann. A big round of applause to him.
One argument many people will have against slapping a bunch of links on their homepages out to their external profiles is that adding a whole bunch of links is going to look butt-ugly. This doesn’t have to be the case though. One option would be to use iconified links back to their profiles, like Vero does. Another option would be to simply store all these links back to the profiles on a separate page on their site. This page would be linked to their homepage using a reciprocated rel=”me” link. So, all the profile’s could still point to a person’s homepage but still be indirectly verified by the tertiary page on the user’s own site.
This is what I do with my vCard page (which is built automatically from my vCard in my Adress Book on my computer) – because NeilCrosby.com connects to my vCard using rel=”me”, I can tell my social profiles to link to NeilCrosby.com, and then link to my social profiles from my vCard. This forms a triangle of confirmed links and Google’s Social Graph API knows who I am across the web.
But why is this so important?
Well, without a proper graph of connections a fully portable social network will never be possible. I would love to be able to sign up to a new site tomorrow, tell it who I am on Flickr or Twitter or wherever and have it be able to go off and find out who I was everywhere else and do as much prefilling of my profile as possible based on who I was everywhere else. Even more than that though, I’d love for this mythical site to tell me which of my contacts on the 30 or so other sites I frequent were also on the one I was just signing up to.
But, if even the alpha geeks of the world are not plugging into the graph, what hope is there?
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