Shared Social Graph: An interview with Alison McCauley

Q: What is the social graph?

A: The social graph is simply a digital representation of our online relationships. Today, social graphs are owned by private companies and each platform has their own. The social graph is immensely powerful, because so much of how we connect, learn, transact, contribute, and consume travels over the circuitry. So private companies who own our social graph have essentially become gatekeepers of our interactions. They broker our relationships, they get all the value of our personal data, they surveil us, and they use that data too. And they have control over the information we see.

Q: Who should own the social graph?

A: We believe the social graph should not be private company property. It should belong to everyone as basic public infrastructure. When the social graph is unified, shared, and open, we have a path to making it better for all of us. We can have one social graph underlying many apps built by many people and many different sizes of companies or entrepreneurs. This new social graph belongs to the public and is decentralized, meaning it's not under corporate control, and instead is managed by the entire global community that uses it, like the web. This is also critical to making it work better for all of us. Standards organizations have done this for a long time with the web's core protocols, and the social graph can work the same way.

We can embed civic values into the core protocol, and embed individual data rights by default. For example, we can ensure that the person who's using an app that's built on the social graph owns their data. Instead of a company owning it, the person controls their data and how it's used. We can establish a foundation that makes it possible for the value from the use of that data to flow directly to the person who contributed it. With this new model, we can design using the knowledge of what went wrong in the past so we can all work together to build better.

Q: What do you hope the world would be like with a shared social graph?

A: We all get that social networks are powerful, but it's harder for us all to see how proprietary walled gardens have limited what we can do with our social networks. We've been limited by a very narrow interpretation of what's possible. The options that are open to us are limited to the use cases that best drive profit for large companies. We've actually seen very little of what we can do with our social networks. How could we collaborate better? What kind of new commerce could we open up? We're limited today by the interpretations of just a handful of companies. For thousands of years, we've come together in towns and cities to drive social and economic benefit by working together. What would happen if the way we come together today, which is digitally and at massive scale, could be supported by a new digital civic architecture instead of run by a private company? What could this unlock?

There is immense power in our social networks, so by taking the social graph back, we open the opportunity to connect the power of our social networks together to drive change. We're relying on large private companies to fix the problems we're facing with social media, but their incentives are to drive profit, not to strengthen our social civic fabric. So, by creating a new model and a new foundation, we unlock an alternate digital future, fueled by open architecture and community governance. And we open the chance to bring together all the best thinkers, no matter where they are, to discover new ways to make things better.

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