"It is just that the technology has opened the door of random opportunity. We can now meet folks we would never have otherwise come across. That's the revolution"
He is of-course right. The wonderful thing about the social web is the randomness of new connections it spawns. One of the greatest things about this blogging lark (and if I'm honest one of the things that has surprised me most about it) is the number of new connections I've made, and the great people I have met as a result of it. Interesting people I would never have met otherwise.
But this randomness, the inherent complexity of human relations, and the fact that online communities are of-course self-forming mean that our social graphs are infinitely elaborate. Think about the friends you have on Facebook. Some of them you might think of as 'real' friends, some as mere acquaintances, some as people you know through your work. Yet the classification on Facebook is the same – a 'Friend' . The fact is that Social Networking applications are not yet sophisticated enough to effectively express the myriad levels of friendship and connection with which we are familiar and which we use on a daily basis. It's what Scott Karp calls "the inability of the 'social graph' on the web to capture the infinite variability of human relationships".
Take this as an example. Recent research done by BMRB shows that the average 16-24 year old has 146 friends on the social networking site they most use. I doubt anyone's 'Dunbar number' (the maximum number of individuals with whom any of us can maintain a social relationship) is up as high as 150. Like Grant, mine is probably closer to 50. If I was as young as the respondees it may be higher, but within that 150 there will likely be a wide differential in the quality and activity relating to those connections. The same study found that the 16-24 year olds have texted an average of 34 people and met up with only 11 in the last month. There's going to be a big difference between the 146th friend on Bebo and the friend they saw last Saturday night.
So this means that social applications have some way to go to reach a level of sophistication. And why is this important? Because services and communication which understand the context of the connection are infinitely more powerful. If you believe, as Grant does, that machines will do a better job at building social connections than we can because they "can detect patterns in the stuff I put on line, and find hidden resonances in the stuff others put on line", the potential for automated services to facilitate what Shirky calls the "self-synchronization of otherwise latent groups" is bright. But social is human. And as Bernard Lunn points out, the ownership issues around the social graph are still murky (I may be using your service but my friends are my friends). So this means that it only works if it useful to me, if it is relevant, if it gives me something that I didn't have before. A greater understanding of context can deliver this, but only if it is done with a great deal of care and respect.