Here’s a question I’ve been tossing around for the past week: Which web service has the best representation of the In-Real-Life (IRL) social graph? Knowing who is *actually* friends with whom IRL (and not just accepting a friend request out of social guilt or apathy) would be a valuable data set to own. The IRL social graph has existed for as long as humans have formed friendships, yet throughout that history I can’t think of any really high quality historical attempts to map it. I’d go so far to say the IRL social graph is so important that the social graphs of many popular web services are valuable based largely on their ability to proxy the IRL social graph. So, who has the best proxy, or perhaps even a totally accurate model?
Lets get the obvious statement out of the way: it’s not Facebook. If I look just one degree out on my Facebook social graph I see people I don’t even recognize anymore, and I think that’s true too for many of my friends using the service. Some people (not me) will accept a Facebook friend request after meeting a friend of a friend out at a party. Perhaps this is good social graces in our modern times, but it’s a big part of the reason why Facebook’s social graph is not a good proxy to the IRL social graph. The IRL social graph is likely a subset of FB’s graph, which means the edges in the IRL social graph are more meaningful than in FB’s graph.
When Facebook Places launched, Nate Westheimer mentioned in a well-thought out post that Foursquare owned the IRL social graph. Foursquare’s sensitive data asset (the locations of my friends and me) and their respect for users’ privacy encourages me to permission information to only people in my IRL social graph. I believe Nate and I agree on that point. But, Foursquare isn’t popular enough to own the IRL social graph yet because most of my IRL friends are not on Foursquare and have no interest in Foursquare (yet). So, Foursquare is probably well-positioned to own the IRL Social Graph in the near future, but they’ve still got a long road ahead of them.
Along the same lines as Foursquare, I think Blackberry Messenger (BBM) has a solid shot at capturing the IRL social graph, if they weren’t limited to Blackberry-only. When I carried a Blackberry, only my IRL friends got BBM access from me, and so for a brief window when many of my friends carried Blackberrys, they had an interesting data asset. But now almost no one who is important in my life carries a Blackberry (at least not as their primary phone), so it’s no longer a good social graph to own, and not a good map of the IRL social graph.
How about my cell phone and text message logs (aka Google Voice)? If I call someone, they are very likely to be in my IRL social graph because I reserve phone calls for only people that merit such a high level of attention. If I were in high school and were a user of Google Voice, I’d say this is one of the best proxies to my IRL social graph, but Google ends up with noisy data because I use my cell phone for work all the time, which clouds my IRL social graph. Google Voice doesn’t know if a person I call often is an old college roommate I’m reconnecting with or a newly minted MBA that I’m phone-screening, and the difference between those two types of calls is essential to mapping the IRL social graph.
A good picture of the IRL social graph would understand the difference between my different sets of connections… it would know that work friends, entrepreneurs, long-time college friends, family, and others are clumped into groups that rarely intermingle. In fact I often actively try to keep these groups separate in my life. Most social services, especially Facebook, really fail at capturing this aspect of the IRL social graph. I know Paul Adams did a great job explaining this concept in his presentation on real world social networks, and I completely agree with him on this point.
In case you can’t tell yet, this post is an open question (please fight for your winner in the comments). I haven’t figured out who has the best proxy for my IRL social graph. The company with the best chance of figuring it out, for me at least, is Google. Google has my search history, all my email, my calendar, Google Chat logs, the docs I’ve shared with others, and (if I weren’t an iPhone user) my phone logs and txt messages. From that mess of data, I could easily see a great map of my IRL social graph emerging. But, Google doesn’t *get* social (need proof? See Orkut, Buzz privacy issues, Wave, Lively, Dodgeball etc…). They would have to fight their own instincts the whole way towards mapping the IRL social graph correctly.