Who Owns My Social Graph?

In a comment, Neil Burton of Web Spiders picks up on my rhetorical question why would I want my employer to own my social graph? __by asking

In this case [an enterprise social networking tool provided by the company] is your social graph actually intellectual property of the company? would a company who gave you a tool want you to use the benefits of this when moving to another organisation (who could be a competitor)?

I can certainly see Neil’s point, indeed in pre-Web 2.0 days a whole body of law has grown up around the use of contact lists etc. that one has accumulated through the course of carrying out a job. I don’t know if there is any relevant case law that brings this up to date…

On the other side of the coin, as an individual I clearly feel that the information about my connections to other people (i.e. my relationships to other people) is absolutely my information. Even if the means of expressing and sharing that information belongs to an employer or a third party like LinkedIn or Facebook.

Perhaps there is a lesson for employers from the situation with “public” social networking sites. Clearly sites have a business proposition around “monetising” the network (aside – we so have to find a better verb!) that users create. In return we accept (or put up with) that because of the benefits we perceive from sharing our connections. The sites have to make their proposition attractive or else there will be no network and no money. The analogy within an organisation would be the organisation investing in the tools in order to benefit from a more effective workforce, giving the users the benefits they perceive.

In all cases the underlying tension is between a closed network and an open one. For users open networks or the ability to transfer their information from one system to another is a key benefit. For employers the typical initial reaction will be similar to Neil’s – if this gives us an advantage we want to keep it in house. My feeling is that this analysis springs in part from assuming the social graph is like a list of contact details – information that can be of value to anyone.

Looking deeper though, I think a better analogy would be to think of a person’s social graph as if it was part of their training and development record. Just because two people have been on the same course they do not necessarily have the same skills. Just because two people both express a relationship to me via a networking site that does not make our working relationships equivalent. Human relationships are not fungible.

So if a free market in “labour” is of benefit to the firm, and if the effectiveness of a workforce is enhanced by the use of tools that can express relationships, then surely an advantage for such network sharing systems must be the ease with which the information is imported, exported and shared?

There’s a lot to develop here, and some people have already been paying attention to it. This article by Alex Iskold would seem to be a good starting summary, pointing as it does to Brad Fitzpatrick’s post Thoughts on The Social Graph.

Julian Elve
Proactive application of technology to business

My interests include technology, personal knowledge management, social change

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