Social Networks, the Candidates’ and YoursFriday, May 23rd, 2008 by Harry Lewis
Some estimates of the value of Facebook run as high as $15 billion. How can that be? It’s just some software and some people, right?
Wrong. It’s data about who hundreds of millions of people know, and who those people know, and how often they communicate, and what they are interested in. Every time someone agrees to be your Facebook friend, the two of you have established a link in Facebook’s gigantic friendship graph. Even the fact that you asked that person is probably recorded somewhere, even if he or she ignores you.
As far as I know, the connections between Reverend Wright and Barack Obama, and between Reverend Hagee and John McCain, were not discovered by electronic sleuthing. But such connections are going to be easier to discover in the future than in the past. Facebook data would be a gold mine, but it won’t help much if you decide to stay off such social networking sites. It’s easy for computers to connect people whose names appeared together in old newspaper articles. Photos and videos will be subject to face recognition, so it will be possible to build a huge “appears-in-the-same-image-with” graph automatically. Public figures will have to worry more and more about their associations, as it looks like the public interest in their circle of acquaintances will not diminish anytime soon.
And the power of the government to create such structures of social connections will be even greater than what can be gathered from public sources. The UK may implement a massive data aggregation system, including data on every phone call, email, and instant message in the nation. The fight against terror demands such ubiquitous surveillance, goes the claim.
Would we live our lives differently, fearing that our everyday social contacts, and our adventurous escapades, are all going to wind up in the government’s great social network? How will the world change when clumsy attempts at romantic outreach, phone calls placed to wrong numbers, and group photos snapped at parties all turn into contextless edges in that permanent, all-encompassing social graph?