Forget the social graph: pay attention to the work graph

The term ‘social graph’ was popularized at the Facebook F8 conference back in 2007, and helped that company explain what it was trying to do in its core architecture and business models. At first I considered the term as having no real difference — a near synonym — for social networks, with the exception of stressing the ‘rigorous mathematical analysis’ derived from graph theory.

However, over time I came to appreciate that the social graph is actually a larger formulation than social networks: it is a graph (or network) of people as well as social objects — the things that people are talking about, or sharing, that shape the relationships between the people in the social networks.

It turns out that the term was originally offered up by my friend, Jyri Engstrom, the founder of Jaiku, back in 2005, when he wrote Why some social network services work and others don’t — Or: the case for object-centered sociality:

Social network theory fails to recognise such real-world dynamics because its notion of sociality is limited to just people.

Another friend, the cartoonist Hugh MacLoed (@gapingvoid) popularized the term in the years following, as in Social Objects for Beginners.

We’ve seen a few major trends in the consumer side based on the magnetic power of the social graph:

  • photo-centric social tools like Instagram have zoomed to billions of users and multi-billion dollar values, and likewise, video sharing has exploded, like Vine and YouTube
  • chat apps — where discussions are the social objects — have likewise exploded.

In the enterprise side, we’ve seen the echo of Engestrom’s words: the best work management tools are those that focus on the tight connection between people in work networks, but take some aspect of the objects of interest floating around in the workplace — the things that define or refine our working together — and tightly connect them into a work graph. The best examples of all work management categories do this, like Asana’s focus on tasks, Podio’s focus on datasets (‘apps’ in their terminology), or Atlassian’s focus on the objects of interest to developers.

This is one of the factors that suggest why the best tools are tightly focused on a small number of work objects and the relations between those objects and the people that connect through them.

Justin Rosenstein of Asana recently talked about this in a Wired piece, The Way We Work Is Soul-Sucking, But Social Networks Are Not the Fix:

A work graph consists of the units of work (tasks, ideas, clients, goals, agenda items); information about that work (relevant conversations, files, status, metadata); how it all fits together; and then the people involved with the work (who’s responsible for what? which people need to be kept in the loop?).

The upshot of the latter data structure is having all the information we need when we need it. Where the enterprise social graph requires blasting a whole team with messages like “Hey, has anyone started working on this yet?”, we can just query the work graph and efficiently find out exactly who’s working on that task and how much progress they’ve made. Where the enterprise social graph model depends on serendipity, the work graph model routes information with purpose: towards driving projects to conclusions.

In my jargon, Justin is saying that push-oriented enterprise social networks (or ‘work media’ tools) are not the solution to work productivity, any more than email is.

My sense is that the reason we are seeing a stall in the uptake of the current generation of work media apps (enterprise social networks, social ‘collaboration’ tools, etc.) is that they don’t stick close enough to the work graph and pull communications , and focus too much on the network and push communications.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying all we need is a shared file system and a way to chat. On the contrary. But we have to get the dynamics right. When people are talking about work, or sharing work objects, the objects must almost be treated as people too, with deep metadata, persistent identities, and following/follower relationship with other objects and people in the graph.

In the new Pew Internet report on the Internet of Things in 2025 I was cited for inventing the term ‘computication’:

Desktop computers will be in museums, although a certain cadre will not give up their keyboards and will resist learning how to subvocalize or sign. People who talk to their goggles are considered infantile, since most people give up on that technique before starting school. Most people have wrist or finger devices that talk with their goggles, even when the goggles are off (in bed, exercising, in the shower, etc.), giving notifications, and allowing a subset of computication capability.

Some work objects — and other social objects — will become partly animate, capable of communicating with each other and us. Sensors, AIs, intelligent documents — all will demonstrate the characteristics of Bruce Sterling’s spimes. They will have ‘lifetimes’ and they will persist. They will have relationships with us and other spimes. They will computicate.

Our work graphs will be richer for that, but today’s tools are organized around inanimate and flimsy work objects. Beefing that up is one of the major trends for the next five years in the enterprise.

Making sense of social networks, social graphs, collaboration, and cooperation in the new way of work: Leanership

A post from last year by Sharon Richardson (Collaboration is not the same as Social) has inspired to the revisit some terms and clarify what I think are the differences and overlap between them, and to makes a case for the growing interest around cooperative work.

A social network is best thought of visually as a graph, where people form the nodes and relationships are the arcs between them. These arcs can have all sorts of semantic values and can be directional so one person can ‘trust’ another while that might not be reciprocated, or similarly ‘twitter follower of’. But some relations are reflexive, like ‘second cousin of’.


The individual is the new group.

Most importantly, a social network is a mathematical model that highlights some but not all aspects of our extremely layered, deep, and changing social relationships, both in work and out of it.

Social network is a term that is applied to a growing number of web services that provide a way for people to communicate and connect online, like Facebook, Twitter, and business variants like Yammer, Podio, and IBM Connections. That reapplication of the term has caused some confusion, but in general it makes sense to use the term in both ways.

The idea of a social graph is a step beyond the social network concept, as I recently outlined:

Next generation work tech has to build on the work graph, not just social networks

[…] the social graph idea has added to the mix the idea of social objects: the photos, messages, likes, and other signals and information that are shared across social networks. So a simplistic but helpful way to think about it is this:

social graph = social network (people) + social objects (things)

This is an important enhancement, because it pulls the things we are working on,  the places we visit, and the topics that we talk about into the graph, and give them a place in our sociality. And in the workplace, the social graph is the work graph, with social objects made of deals, campaigns, products, and strategic goals.

As Richardson points out in her piece collaborative groups are not just any old network or graph:

A collaborative team is a small group of people working together directly towards a specific outcome, something that can’t be achieved, or can’t be achieved as well, by one person alone.

socialnet richardson

[…] the red dot is the leader of the collaborative group. The black dots are members of the collaborative team who are closely connected within the wider social network […].

So the same people form a collaborative, shown on the left, and a part of a larger social network shown on the right. Collaboratives are united — like a team — subordinating their personal goals to the goals of the collaborative. And that’s what collaborative work is like, and it shapes the social graph in a direct way: the work products and information needed for the collaborative are often under the control of the leader of the collaborative, and other members can be added and removed from the collaborative work group by the leader, and may therefore lose access to their own work, and work history.

Cooperative work is based on  different premises from collaborative work.

First of all, in cooperatives each person is the autonomous master of their own work, which they can choose to share opening, or to specific others, for whatever purpose. In this way (as I have been saying since the early ’00s), the individual is the new group.


We don’t have the perfect tools for cooperative work, but I find that using open and flexible, small and simple social tools is probably the best way to go, given the nature of computing infrastructure today.

Secondly, each person operates within a subset of the larger social graph, which is composed of the person and all those others with which the individual has direct relations with. These can be people in the same department, sharing the same floor in the office, but also people with who the individual may have only an informal relationship, or people outside of the company, altogether. And each person is the center of their own set, connected to everyone else, while the others may have no other connections among the set than the one with the set’s ‘leaner’. (Yes, I am using ‘leaner’ as a noun to indicate the central individual in a set. It is based on the idea of ‘leanership’ replacing ‘leadership’ in the new way of business, as I discussed in Leanership trumps leadership).

So, another way to look at a social network — for example, the social network in a business — is as a set of these sets: the union of all the social sets, each defined as the collection of people connected to a single person in the network.

And, that reflects on cooperative work. Imagine that I want to get something done here in Beacon, like a series of open forums on bettering the city, so I reach out to a few contacts in my set, asking for ideas and interest. two people are interested, and they both suggest other people that I don’t know. And after connecting with them, they have ideas and invite another aboard. Every one comes together at some meetings, people start to segregate into different activities, and I continue to lean this ‘scene’ of people — both the set of people directly working as members of a committee, and the outside connections we all have to informally build support and offer added ideas — as we roll out the forums over the year.

In this model, each participant is pursuing their own agenda. I did not demand that everyone agree to a specific ‘mission’ except in the most general notion of increased public discourse about issues important to Beacon NY, no one can task anyone else to do something they don’t volunteer for, since the only means of control is persuasion and affiliation.

This is cooperative leanership. Each is the leaner of their own work, their own aspirations and goals. There is no one ‘in charge’, exactly, and people find common cause and moving together in the same general direction for the duration of the project good enough. Afterward, the activity and its temporary social network of overlapping sets falls apart, while each person’s set — perhaps with new connections and ‘settlers’ — persists.

We don’t have the perfect tools for cooperative work, but I find that using open and flexible, small and simple social tools is probably the best way to go, given the nature of computing infrastructure today.

Mission and purpose for a cooperative business emerges from the decisions and drives of people across the scenes that make up the business. Yes, the business has to have more leanership than this. Hiring must happen, investments must be made, and the myriad activities across the company must be balanced. But that is likely to be another scene, a social graph uniting people from the many activities and cooperatively guiding policies, not a management cadre sitting above the rest like a rider astride a horse.

Leanership is the new way of leadership, putting aside the slow and static power controls of collaborative work, and loosening controls to become fast and agile, replacing leaders with leaners.

Next generation work tech has to build on the work graph, not just social networks

Mark Zuckerberg is responsible for popularizing the term ‘social graph’ at the Facebook F8 conference on May 27 2007, as a way of explaining the Facebook Platform’s value proposition: offering up the social relationship data of between Facebook users, and to other social objects (like photos and posts), so that other app developers could simply use it and not have to regenerate it.

The earlier use of the term may have originated with Philippe Bouzaglou who used the term in a paper that applied graph theory to explore the characteristics of the social network it modeled. Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook and now a co-founder of Asana, attended that class with Bouzaglou. People might have gravitated to it also as a helpful disambiguation from the ‘social networks’ like Twitter and Facebook: the category of apps. It comes as no surprise then that people at Asana are using the term social graph, and now have proposed the term work graph in distinction from the more general social graph.

I didn’t initially see that the term social graph offered much over the historical use of the term social network, but now my view has shifted, and for one reason. I always considered the principles of social networks as being derived from graph theory in the first place, but the social graph idea has added to the mix the idea of social objects: the photos, messages, likes, and other signals and information that are shared across social networks. So a simplistic but helpful way to think about it is this:

social graph = social network (people) + social objects (things)

Returning to the notion of work graph, Justin Rosenstein, Dustin’s co-founder at Asana has written a deeply insightful lament about the state of work, and one that echoes a lot of my groaning about the state of work tech tools and our reliance on email:

Justin Rosenstein, The Way We Work Is Soul-Sucking, But Social Networks Are Not the Fix

Surely someday people will look back on us with the same awe, wonder, and sympathy that we look back on previous times: Did they really spend all frickin’ day sitting in front of Gmail and Outlook?

[…]

Meanwhile, the concept of enterprise social networks — and that what works on Facebook will work for businesses — has certainly been appealing. (Not to mention that it creates an enviably straightforward product design roadmap for companies like Microsoft’s Yammer and Salesforce’s Chatter teams: just clone Twitter’s and Facebook’s features, one by one). Such networks do have some advantages over email.

But they are small, incremental improvements. It’s an indication of just how bad the status quo is that even small Band-Aids can represent a billion dollars’ worth of value.

So you might wonder what does he think the answer is? He suggests that we look at the work graph — the network of people (the nodes on the graph) and metadata about them, their relationships (the arcs on the graph), and the ‘units of work’, which are information elements (tasks, ideas, clients, goals, milestones, and so on). And then there are additional schemas — although he doesn’t use that term — that define ways that these work graph elements tie together. And then we must build tools that manipulate objects through work schemas on behalf of people in the work graph: not just passing messages from person to person in the social network.

Rosenstein states that enterprise social networks don’t meet what he thinks is the chief requirement of work tech: Having all the information we need when we need it. I disagree. That has been the value proposition pushed for decades by enterprise software types: the right information to the right people at the right time. But I think he is still correct when he says that today’s work tech doesn’t effectively fit with today’s work graph. But that’s because the now dominant tools are structured around old notions of collaborative control, rather than new notions of cooperative autonomy, and failed to push into emergent value based on strategic learning.

Here’s what he said, though. He gets awfully close to my point above:

The upshot of the latter data structure is having all the information we need when we need it. Where the enterprise social graph requires blasting a whole team with messages like “Hey, has anyone started working on this yet?”, we can just query the work graph and efficiently find out exactly who’s working on that task and how much progress they’ve made. Where the enterprise social graph model depends on serendipity, the work graph model routes information with purpose: towards driving projects to conclusions.

Imagine having more clarity, sanity, confidence, time, and autonomy. Not drowning in email or worrying about whether the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed. Not having to sit in status meetings or through annoying boss interruptions to find out what’s going on. Instead of worrying about delays or missing deadlines, we can focus on achieving goals and working together effortlessly.

At the heart of this is rethinking how we design our tools. We’ve been able to get by until now on a patchwork of solutions and incremental improvements, but that’s just addressing a need. Attaining our future desires, however, will be about tools that are designed from the ground up for helping people work together.

I totally agree. As I wrote last October

The coming cooperative organization is scary, because it places ambiguity and uncertainty at the center of organization dynamics. It is based on not knowing exactly what to do, in a world increasingly difficult to read. It values experimentation over execution, places agility above process, and puts learning ahead of knowing. It asks more questions than it can answer, and it may not even know how to answer them.

And we certainly don’t have the tools to do that, yet. Visionaries like Dustin and Justin are likely to be the folks cooking up new approaches though, not the large established vendors of last century collaboration tools.

Here’s a potentially powerful tool for exploring your social graph

A database vendor called Objectivity has created a mobile app called GraphMyLife that aims to let consumers explore links between the people and content in their various social networks. I say “aims” because although the idea is pretty cool, the app is a bit laggy and confusing (at least on my phone). But cut Objectivity a break: it’s a specialized (and old) enterprise-tech company trying to humanize its graph database software.