A Social Question

I’m thinking about social networks, and an apple falls on my head. The geeks were on this train eight years ago, but no one noticed. And you know what? They’re still on the same train, and no one notices. FOAF, or ‘Friend of a Friend’ is a formal, computer understandable way of declaring who knows who. Put a bunch of FOAF documents together, and bing, you’ve got a social network. FOAF started a good long time ago, as part of the grass roots technical effort behind the fabled Semantic Web, but just like the Semantic Web, it never hit its growth spurt.

I googled FOAF – 6 and a half million results. Not bad.

Facebook? 36 million. “Social Network”? 15 million. OpenSocial? nearly 11 million.

And FOAF had a six year head start. Eight in the case of OpenSocial.

 

What factors make FOAF just a footnote? A few things –

1) It’s hard – FOAF is all about geeks, from beginning to end. Writing a FOAF document is hard, getting it online is hard, and doing anything with it is hard. The potential market of the technology is limited by its form. The technology was never put within reach of the masses.

2) It’s boring – Who cares if one computer coder is friends with another? The declaration of this knowledge is computationally interesting, but it doesn’t do anything. There’s no sizzle to sell. It creates a social graph, but there’s no socializing happening.

3) It’s artificial – In FOAF, the social connections aren’t created organically, they have to be constructed. If sending an email created a FOAF connection, that would be organic. As it stands now, someone has to go out and document reality. If you want to document reality, it’s much better if the reality forges its own documentation.

 

Let’s look at Facebook, on the other hand. It looses points on the technical purity and openness scale; it’s a big mean closed network. But it gets the three points above spot on.

1) It’s stupid easy to use – there’s barely any barrier to entry at all. Point and click, instant gratification, AJAX love.

2) It’s exciting – on Facebook you can see pictures of people who you might want to date. There has never been a more powerful engine for technical adoption. Period.

3) It’s organic – I create connections on facebook by going about my daily business – talking to people, showing off, looking for love, complementing others, planning a party, building a cause. It’s all sorts of organic; it’s useful.

 

Easy, exciting, and organic. Can we do the same thing for other otherwise doomed Semantic Web technologies? How do you make OWL easy, exciting, and organic? Would love to hear your insights.

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