Posts Tagged 'Google Social Graph'

Reality bites

Today a couple of posts wondered out loud if social networking has peaked

In particular, Malik thinks that the market has transitioned onto niche social networks, in his words

The way I see it, the market has shifted its focus onto niche social networks, such as those dedicated to sports, music, automobiles and pets. You know, sites like Dogster! They have focused, engaged communities, which means they can attract a higher amount of advertising dollars.

In the very first comment on that post,

Niraj said:

While it would be easier to monetize, I can’t see the niche site idea working very well because users would have to sign up at several sites to cover their different interests. Facebook and Myspace’s broader appeal give them a much larger base, and it seems like a tradeoff: easier to monetize versus easier to gain users.

Like Malik, I am seeing a shift to niche social sites because it is getting incredibly harder and harder for horizontal play sites to gain mass traction, I am also speaking from personal experience with my video aggregation site, JiggyMe.

But Niraj does have a point that it is a pain for users to repeatedly sign up and re-enter the same profile information and recreate the social graph over and over. And this is what data portability advocates have always said, a user shouldn’t have to do that time and again. The real value-add for social sites should be the services they provide, not the user and social graph data. I am seeing this happening already now with projects like DiSo, Google Friend Connect, Open Social Foundation, Google Social Graph API, and stealth startup chi.mp. These startups and projects aim to make user and social graph data more open and accessible so social sites can instead focus on providing value-add services instead of keeping users data walled in. Mind you, this is just the start and there is plenty of work to be done to make the user experience seamless, but it is a good start.

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A simple data portability project or is it

As stated in my last post Storm in a teapot, DataPortability.org has started a DIY project of the month on rel=me.

First off, a bit of background about rel=me (rel is short for relationship), XFN, and microformats. rel=me is merely one piece of XFN (XHTML Friends Network) microformat standard. XFN is a format to depict social relationships, i.e., friends, family, lovers, co-workers, etc. For a quick introduction to XFN, check out this page – assumes basic HTML knowledge.

What are microformats you ask. According to microformats.org about page, microformats are designed for humans first and machines second. Well not really, especially for humans that are non-techies. It should have said that microformats are designed for humans with at least a basic knowledge of HTML otherwise it is just gibberish. HTML knowledge is primarily a domain expertise of web developers and designers which are a subset of developers. For example, I met with a friend of mine yesterday who is a software professional for over 20 years with extensive experience in Java / J2EE, security appliances, etc and he has never heard of any of the data portability technologies or even FriendFeed or Twitter for that matter. He is just as clueless as the non-techie users in terms of knowing what XFN is though he has the ability to learn about it far more quickly than a non-techie user.

XFN is only one microformat standard, other microformat standards are

  • hAtom – for marking up Atom feeds from within standard HTML
  • hCalendar – for events
  • hCard – for contact information; includes adr – for postal addresses, geo – for geographical coordinates (latitude, longitude)
  • hReview – for reviews
  • hResume – for resumes or CVs
  • rel-directory – for distributed directory creation and inclusion
  • rel-nofollow, an attempt to discourage 3rd party content spam (e.g. spam in blogs).
  • rel-tag – for decentralized tagging (Folksonomy)
  • xFolk – for tagged links
  • XOXO – for lists and outlines

Getting back to DataPortability.org DIY rel=me project. For those of you that understand HTML, rel=me is an HTML attribute you can add to href link tags to describe your various online identities. For a full list of other rel values, check out this page. For example, here are some of my online identities in XFN rel=me format

<a href="http://twitter.com/bobngu/" rel="me">Bob Ngu's Twitter profile</a>
<a href="http://www.linkedin.com/in/bobngu/" rel="me">Bob Ngu's LinkedIn profile</a>
<a href="http://friendfeed.com/bngu" rel="me">Bob Ngu's FriendFeed profile</a>
<a href="https://ungeekdapo.wordpress.com" rel="me">Bob Ngu's Data Portability Blog</a>

Note that I did some HTML tricks to not display the above information as regular links, otherwise it would look like this normally

As you can see, the actual HTML output has no visual difference as far as a user is concerned, they are simply regular links. But to a XFN capable reader or browser, it can understand the rel=me attribute as semantically meaning “you”. Note that there are many different forms of online identity, not just profiles at popular social sites but also any blogs you own, etc. This is not immediately obvious to a regular user so it’s worth pointing out.

So assuming that you went through the trouble to write up your HTML with rel=me, what next, where is that information actually consumed. I don’t think the 2 most popular browsers (IE 7 and Firefox 2) at this time have native support for XFN, I hear Firefox 3 is suppose to have native microformat support but I haven’t looked for it and if it is there, it isn’t immediately obvious to me. The closest thing I can find is a Firefox plugin called Operator. Operator is a microformat capable reader and for the most part seems to be able to consume most of the above microformat standards except rel=me, kind of odd but kind of understandable.

Here’s an example of a microformat capable page, and this is the microformat information that the Operator (installed on Firefox 2) plugin extracted from the page. For example, there are 3 contacts information: deBurca Ltd, James Burke, Joscelyn Upendran. For all 3 contacts, you can export the contact information in vcard format, just select “Export Contact”.

If you want to test out microformats, you can also use tools like lab.backnetwork.com ufXtract – Microformats Parser (Beta 0.2.2) to read a microformat capable page. I don’t recommend nor expect a non-techie to use that tool though. If you are technically inclined, go ahead and plug in this post URL in the ufXtract tool and select “me” for format, click submit, and you will see the rel=me information extracted.


ufxtract

me:
text: Bob Ngu’s Twitter profile
link: http://twitter.com/bobngu/

me:
text: Bob Ngu’s LinkedIn profile
link: http://www.linkedin.com/in/bobngu/

me:
text: Bob Ngu’s FriendFeed profile
link: http://friendfeed.com/bngu

me:
text: Bob Ngu’s Data Portability Blog
link: https://ungeekdapo.wordpress.com/

Another service capable of consuming XFN, including rel=me, is Google Social Graph APIs but again this is only for techies, specifically web developers. Non-web developers and even web designers might not be well suited to understand the APIs. I heard that Google Social Graph APIs came about after this excellent article Thoughts on the Social Graph by Brad Fitzpatrick (since hired by Google and is responsible for delivering Google Social Graph APIs) and
David Recordon (Six Apart).

Note that Googe Social Graph APIs only work on data after Googlebot has crawled it, so for real-time testing, Google created a test parser URL at
http://socialgraph.apis.google.com/testparse
You can see the Google test parser documentation here. Anyone can send a HTTP POST request to the test parser URL and see the Google Social Graph API results. One of DataPortability.org contributor, Julian Bond, implemented a simple wrapper page around the test parser URL. If you go to the wrapper page and enter this post URL, you will get the following results


SG Test Parser http response: 200
List of outgoing "me" edges
http://twitter.com/bobngu/
http://www.linkedin.com/in/bobngu/
http://friendfeed.com/bngu
https://ungeekdapo.wordpress.com/
...the rest of the output deleted for brevity

Basically the list of outgoing “me” edges is the Google Social Graph output for the rel=me links I added in this post.

Final Thoughts
When I started looking at rel=me, my initial thought was, quoting Sherlock Holmes, “It’s elementary, my dear Watson” but it’s far from elementary as you can see. XFN and microformats are talked about way more in blogs than actually being practiced in the wild. I first started to check for XFN capable sites off this page and a lot of the XFN capable site links are broken, either the site no longer exists or the information is incomplete. It is definitely not a page for non-techies. I did find the one (as mentioned above) site that provided readable microformat information. I also know that Mahalo (a new search engine) also now supports microformat in their results.

At this time, I can honestly say that XFN rel=me proliferation is limited and experimental at best. It would take a while for mass adoption to happen and requires a lot of user education, adoption by popular social sites like Facebook, MySpace, etc, and native browser support.