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Social networks may be imaginary

Think of them as spherical cows

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Supernova Eric Bonabeau doesn't mince words. "A lot of this talk about the social graph," he says, "is crap."

Speaking to a small army of business-minded folk this morning at the annual San Francisco tech conference dubbed Supernova, Bonabeau argued that the world may be exaggerating the influence of so-called social networks. For years, web pundits have said that the social graph - aka all those virtual connections between everyone on earth - will reinvent the way businesses distribute and market online applications. But Bonabeau - a complex systems guru best known for his book Swarm Intelligence - points out that setting up a network, including a social network, is less important than what you actually do with it.

"We see a lot of focus on the structure of networks. Structure is nice. It can be graphed. It can be displayed. It's beautiful. And people can relate to it," said Bonabeau, the founder and chief scientist of Isosystem, a company that tells other companies how to deal with complex computing problems. "But what's really important when you're trying to predict or control or alter the behavior of a system is to really understand the function of the network."

In the Bonabeau lexicon, social networks are spherical cows. "If you ask a mathematician to give the milk yield of a cow, he says 'Let's assume a spherical cow.' There are a lot of spherical cows out there, and the problem with spherical cows is that if you're in the prediction business, they're not that good at predicting anything."

In other words, the social graph is just an idea that makes people feel good. "The social graph is a spherical cow. It's a mental construct. A metaphor. Just because the image looks good doesn't mean that it's useful."

Rather than talking up the social graph as some sort of online cure all, Bonabeau argues, we should focus on the apps themselves. Some apps lend themselves to online propagation, and some don't. If you've got an app that doesn't, he says, then link it to one that does.

"Whatever the structure of your network, you can design a layer on top which does what you want," he concluded. "When you have services that aren't necessarily viral - which do not necessary spread on the network - you need to create and connect some sort of viral vector."

As an example, he pointed to mobile banking services. "No one would say that banking services are viral - but they are if you connect them to things like micro-payments or contributing to some sort of social cause."

OK, Bonabeau may be over-thinking things in his own (entertaining) way. But it's nice to hear someone call the social graph "crap." ®

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