The value of networks: mining and building

The value of networks or graphs underlies many of the internet (and for that read global corporate) giants.  Two of the biggest: Google and Facebook harness this in very different ways — mining and building.

Years ago, when I was part of the startup aQtive, we found there was no effective understanding of internet marketing, and so had to create our own.  Part of this we called ‘market ecology‘.  This basically involved mapping out the relationships of influence between different kinds of people within some domain, and then designing families of products that exploited that structure.

The networks we were looking at were about human relationships: for example teachers who teach children, who have other children as friends and siblings, and who go home to parents.  Effectively we were into (too) early social networking1!

The first element of this was about mining — exploiting the existing network of relationships.

However in our early white papers on the topic, we also noted that the power of internet products was that it was also possible to create new relationships, for example, adding ‘share’ links.  That is building the graph.

The two are not distinct, if one is not able to exploit new relationships within a product it will die, and the mining of existing networks can establish new links (e.g. Twitter suggesting who to follow).  Furthermore, creating of links is rarely ex nihilo, an email ‘share’ link uses an existing relationships (contact in address book), but brings it into a potentially different domain (e.g. bookmarking a web page).

It is interesting to see Google and Facebook against this backdrop.  Their core strengths are in different domains (web information and social relationships), but moreover they focus differently on mining and building.

Google is, par excellence, about mining graphs (the web).  While it has been augmented and modified over the years, the link structure used in PageRank is what made Google great.  Google also mine tacit relationships, for example the use of word collocation to understand concepts and relationships, so in a sense build from what they mine.

Facebook’s power, in contrast, is in the way it is building the social graph as hundreds of millions of people tell it about their own social relationships.  As noted, this is not ex nihilo, the social relationships exist in the real word, but Facebook captures them digitally.  Of course, then Facebook mines this graph in order to derive revenue form advertisements, and (although people debate this) attempt to improve the user experience by ranking posts.

Perhaps the greatest power comes in marrying the two.   Amazon does this to great effect within the world of books and products.

As well as a long-standing academic interest, these issues are particularly germane to my research at Talis where the Education Graph is a core element.  However, they apply equally whether the core network is kite surfers, chess or bio-technology.

Between the two it is probably building that is ultimately most critical.  When one has a graph or network it is possible to find ways to exploit it, but without the network there is nothing to mine. Page and Brin knew this in the early days of their pre-Google project at Stanford, and a major effort was focused on simply gathering the crawl of the web on which they built their algorithms2.  Now Google is aware that, in principle, others can exploit the open resources on which much of its business depends; its strength lies in its intellectual capital. In contrast, with a few geographical exceptions, Facebook is the social graph, far more defensible as Google has discovered as it struggles with Google Plus.

  1. See our retrospective about vfridge  at  last year’s HCI conference and our original web sharer vision.[back]
  2. See the description of this in “In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives“.[back]

endings and beginnings: cycling, HR and Talis

It is the end of the summer, the September rush starts (actually at the end of August) and on Friday I’ll be setting off on the ferry and be away from home for all of September and October 🙁  Of course I didn’t manage to accomplish as much as I wanted over the summer, and didn’t get away on holiday … except of course living next to the sea is sort of like holiday every day!  However, I did take some time off when Miriam visited, joining her on cycle rides to start her training for her Kenyan challenge — neither of us had been on a bike for 10 years!  Also this last weekend saw the world come to Tiree when a group of asylum seekers and refugees from the St Augustine Centre in Halifax visited the Baptist Church here — kite making, songs from Zimbabwe and loads of smiling faces.

In September I also hand over departmental personnel duty (good luck Keith :-)).  I’d taken on the HR role before my switch to part-time at the University, and so most of it stayed with me through the year 🙁 (Note, if you ever switch to part-time, better to do so before duties are arranged!). Not sorry to see it go, the people bit is fine, but so much paper filling!

… and beginnings … in September (next week!) I also start to work part-time with Talis.  Talis is a remarkable story.  A library information systems company that re-invented itself as a Semantic Web company and now, amongst other things, powering the Linked Data at

I’ve known Talis as a company from its pre-SemWeb days when aQtive did some development for them as part of our bid to survive the crash.   aQtive did in the end die, but Talis had stronger foundations and has thrived1.  In the years afterwards two ex-aQtive folk, Justin and Nad, went to Talis and for the past couple of years I have also been on the external advisory group for their SemWeb Platform.  So I will be joining old friends as well as being part of an exciting enterprise.

  1. Libraries literally need very strong foundations.  I heard of one university library that had to be left half empty because the architect had forgotten to take account of the weight of books.  As the shelves filled the whole building began to sink into the ground.[back]

Phoenix rises – vfridge online again

vfridge is back!

I mentioned ‘Project Phoenix’ in my last previous post, and this was it – getting vfridge up and running again.

Ten years ago I was part of a company aQtive1 with Russell Beale, Andy Wood and others.  Just before it folded in the aftermath of the crash, aQtive spawned a small spin-off  The virtual fridge was a social networking web site before the term existed, and while vfridge the company went the way of most dot.coms, for some time after I kept the vfridge web site running on Fiona’s servers until it gradually ‘decayed’ partly due to Javascript/DOM changes and partly due to Java’s interactions with mysql becoming unstable (note very, very old Java code!).  But it is now back online 🙂

The core idea of vfridge is placing small notes, photos and ‘magnets’ in a shareable web area that can be moved around and arranged like you might with notes held by magnets to a fridge door.

Underlying vfridge was what we called the websharer vision, which looked towards a web of user-generated content.  Now this is passé, but at the time  was directly counter to accepted wisdom and looking back seem prescient – remember this was written in 1999:

Although everyone isn’t a web developer, it is likely that soon everyone will become an Internet communicator — email, PC-voice-comms, bulletin boards, etc. For some this will be via a PC, for others using a web-phone, set-top box or Internet-enabled games console.

The web/Internet is not just a medium for publishing, but a potential shared place.

Everyone may be a web sharer — not a publisher of formal public ‘content’, but personal or semi-private sharing of informal ‘bits and pieces’ with family, friends, local community and virtual communities such as fan clubs.

This is not just a future for the cognoscenti, but for anyone who chats in the pub or wants to show granny in Scunthorpe the baby’s first photos.

Just over a year ago I thought it would be good to write a retrospective about vfridge in the light of the social networking revolution.  We did a poster “Designing a virtual fridge” about vfridge years ago at a Computers and Fun workshop, but have never written at length abut its design and development.  In particular it would be good to analyse the reasons, technical, social and commercial, why it did not ‘take off’ the time.  However, it is hard to do write about it without good screen shots, and could I find any? (Although now I have)  So I thought it would be good to revive it and now you can try it out again. I started with a few days effort last year at Christmas and Easter time (leisure activity), but now over the last week have at last used the fact that I have half my time unpaid and so free for my own activities … and it is done 🙂

The original vfridge was implemented using Java Servlets, but I have rebuilt it in PHP.  While the original development took over a year (starting down in Coornwall while on holiday watching the solar eclipse), this re-build took about 10 days effort, although of course with no design decisions needed.  The reason it took so much development back then is one of the things I want to consider when I write the retrospective.

As far as possible the actual behaviour and design is exactly as it was back in 2000 … and yes it does feel clunky, with lots of refreshing (remember no AJAX or web2.0 in those days) and of course loads of frames!  In fact there is a little cleverness that allowed some client-end processing pre-AJAX2.    Also the new implementation uses the same templates as the original one, although the expansion engine had to be rewritten in PHP.  In fact this template engine was one of our most re-used bits of Java code, although now of course many alternatives.  Maybe I will return to a discussion of that in another post.

I have even resurrected the old mobile interface.  Yes there were WAP phones even in 2000, albeit with tiny green and black screens.  I still recall the excitement I felt the first time I entered a note on the phone and saw it appear on a web page 🙂  However, this was one place I had to extensively edit the page templates as nothing seems to process WML anymore, so the WML had to be converted to plain-text-ish HTML, as close as possible to those old phones!  Looks rather odd on the iPhone :-/

So, if you were one of those who had an account back in 2000 (Panos Markopoulos used it to share his baby photos 🙂 ), then everything is still there just as you left it!

If not, then you can register now and play.

  1. The old aQtive website is still viewable at, but don’t try to install onCue, it was developed in the days of Windows NT.[back]
  2. One trick used the fact that you can get Javascript to pre-load images.  When the front-end Javascript code wanted to send information back to the server it preloaded an image URL that was really just to activate a back-end script.  The frames  used a change-propagation system, so that only those frames that were dependent on particular user actions were refreshed.  All of this is preserved in the current system, peek at the Javascript on the pages.    Maybe I’ll write about the details of these another time.[back]