The Role of the W3C in Opening the Social Web

Harry Halpin, <H.Halpin a!>


September 20th 2008

Opening the Social Graph

facebook pic Ordinary people are both increasingly wanting more and more powerful applications to access their social data and are increasingly putting their most valuable social data in the hands of third-parties.

Developers and (some) companies are tired of lock-in to just one social networking site API.

Unlike current primarily commercial efforts, a genuine solution to this demand requires careful attention to issues of accessibility, privacy, and non-profit and educational use.

The Data Portability Group

data portability been tremendously successful as a grassroots group attracting interest - over a 1000 subscribers and every single major vendor from Google to Facebook has joined.

Myspace, Facebook, and OpenSocial

Similar to "browser wars," there now are competing ways to share social graph data on the Internet.

  1. OpenSocial Alliance: Started by Google and Myspace, and endorsed by Yahoo! and virtually all the minor players in the social networking world. Open Source implementation: Shindig
  2. Facebook: The dominant player in the social networking world, has mysterious plans to offer "Facebook" connect. Microsoft has a large amount of shares in Facebook.

Obviously a W3C-approved Semantic Web compatible standard way of doing this would be ideal.

Yahoo!'s Semantic Search

From Yahoo's Open Search Strategy: Without a killer semantic web app for consumers, site owners have been reluctant to support standards like RDF, or even microformats. We believe that app can be web search...we plan to support vocabulary from Dublin Core, Creative Commons, FOAF, GeoRSS, MediaRSS, and others. ... we will support RDFa and eRDF markup to embed these into existing HTML pages. yahoo semsearch

Google's Social Graph API: Mixing FOAF and XFN

Brad Fitzpatrick over at Google is working on using the hCard and XFN microformats to create and track identities.

Contact Finder follows relationships and indexes whose linked to whom...

social graph demo

W3C Social Web XG


Allows a much-looser and quicker moving forum than a Working Group for exploratory purposes, allows creation of a Working Group and recommendations to be "fast-tracked."

Serves as a forum inside the W3C to get diverse groups interested in this communicating, with less patent and less membership requirements, so major corporations and non-W3C members can participate

Very transparent, with meeting minutes and mailing list will be open to the public..

Two Stories

The Social Web requires: data portability
  1. The Authentication Story: How can you use a single login to securely access multiple services, both to download, modify, and upload social data?
  2. The Social Graph Story: How do we actually get the social graph, merge with others from different services, and query graphs.

A Rose by another Name

roses The Social Graph is also the idea behind the Semantic Web, a W3C Stack of standards the W3C has been working on for nearly a decade, including a data model for merging heterogeneous data, constraints via ontologies, and querying.

Tim Berners-Lee believes the Web can evolve what he terms a Giant Global Graph that connects people and their relationships.

More expansive than traditional social data, including data such as calendars (scheduling meetings), reviews (reviewing movies), to-do lists, shopping (booking an airplane), genealogies.


The largest unsolved problem is identification and privacy on the Web.

Just publish all your data on the Web will not work for sensitive social data.

We need will need to harmonize and even research solutionsin this area, such as managing multiple profiles, trust, security, deleting your data on command... semantic web

Main Questions

The two questions are:

  • Can the W3C provide a forum to harmonize existing technical solutions? (OpenID, FOAF, SIOC, OAuth...),
  • Can the major vendors commit to a common set of best practices?

    Social Web Working Group

    Tim Berners-Lee To be determined by outcome of first six months of "social networking"

    Harmonize and stabilize relevant standards and think through privacy and identity issues with the Semantic Web.

    Especially stabilization of FOAF (Friend of a Friend Vocabulary).

    Determine the privacy story for merging heterogeneous data, how to mix OpenID, OAuth, and FOAF together. With W3C Fellowship providing team resources, have strict timeline with three interoperable implementations, test-cases, and strict accessibility and royalty-free patent guidelines.

    Last six months (from Last Call to Candidate Recommendation to W3C Recommendation) will focus on dissemination.

    The W3C Royalty-Free Patent Policy

    troll One problem is without a patent policy we might inadvertently build a software patent into our standard.

    Having a patent in supposed open standard that companies unwittingly implement is an instant business plan for troll.

    For examples, see the conflict over XRIs (used in some ideas about data portability!) in the W3C, which led to the development of the W3C's patent policy.

    Royalty-Free might discourage both large corporations with huge numbers of patents from participating...but social data portability is only going to work if everyone comes to the table honestly and openly.

    Current State of Play


    Standards, Standards, Standards

    Some Areas


    Likely Solutions

    Unlikely that we can get organizations to commit to a single API (OpenSocial, Microsoft Contact API, Facebook Developer Platform)

    Likely that we can create a common semantic and extensible meta-model that maps and normalizes the data existing APIs export.

    Unlikely that we can pass a single standard for privacy and authentication on the Web

    Likely that we can use the W3C to harmonize other technologies like OAuth with existing W3C work

    Unlikely that the W3C can produce a single monolithic technology architecture for the Social Web

    Likely that we can produce some best practices (including accessibility) with three exemplary and compatible open source implementations that could be used by non-profit and educational institutions.

    Participatory Design

    Current standards are often created by very political ad-hoc committess, forgetting the needs of real users.

    So we need to actively involve users - in the case of of the Uni. of Edinburgh - students and staff.

    This is a separate activity from the rest of the effort, but an example that will be done to provide examples for everyone involved to do their own user study with their respective interest group, from developers to corporate users.


    W3C will produce international press releases announcing the various developments and standards to the groups - and they can get a hold of the entire technology press.

    This issue has been hot in the media, see all the news simply when someone joins listserv.

    Will distribute information at major conferences in Web development, such as World Wide Web Conference, XTech, SXSW, International Semantic Web Conference and so on..

    Nothing more powerful than a hands-on tutorial at a conference, a BarCamp, or - best yet! - one-to-one.

    Everything will be kept track using a blog and users will be able to join public list-serv and get account on public wiki

    Why Do this?

    Social Network Global Map Social Networks are increasingly globally the primary way large amounts of the population, especially youth, communicate through the Net.

    Katrina People-Finder

    Ninth Ward

    An open-source project to help people find their lost loved ones in aftermath of Katrina. Within three days, over half a million people's contact info and status was posted.

    Due to lack of open-standards like FOAF based on Semantic Web technologies could not easily merge or query data from diverse sources like Craigslist and the Gulf News.

    Due to lack of privacy practice they had to eventually take down entire project simply because newspapers and others threatened to sue.

    Parting Thoughts


    I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.

    William Morris. A Dream of John Ball