The "social graph" -- the exposure of the network of connections of human beings, combined with other data, and the implications involved -- first was created and followed in online virtual worlds and MMORPGs (massive multi-player online role-play games). The same coders and engineers who perfected these in games and worlds went on to social media where they perfected them further, ultimately for use in elections (Obama was the first candidate to win using the drilling of social network data). Now the notion of the social graph has hit the headlines in relationship to the NSA Snowden scandals (and perhaps a related concept, the social gesture, i.e. every little thing you do online, will be next).
I first encountered the social graph in the hands of Will Wright, designer of The Sims Online, an outgrowth of the hugely popular Sims game moved to real-time interaction by real humans online. The humans obviously weren't automated like the Sims offline game, but they were automatized by having only a limited repertoire of automatic actions they could perform, and a rote set of chores and tasks they had to complete in order to stay functioning -- the diamonds above their heads had to be "kept green" and "out of the red" by having the Sim play pool, socialize, sleep, go to the bathroom, eat, dance, work, etc. Interestingly, even within the confines of this open-ended but regimented game, people devised all kinds of creative ways to do two things people like to do most: a) make money b) have sex.
Will Wright had various collectivized collaborationist "better world" notions he forced on the population, i.e. creating "group jobs" that would force people to socialize and collaborate to complete tasks. These were quickly sabotaged. Either people just built bots and made alts to run through the chores at top speed and generate "simoleons" as the world's cash was known (which had a real black market value on e-bay and gaming exchanges), or they would devise extra rules, like making bets on the outcome of pizza options, or they would optimize the aspects of the game in superior ways to try to beat their adverse disruptions -- i.e. placing toilets next to wood-working benches for the Sim to toilet while he worked as it really didn't matter if he ran across the screen to a sheltered toilet -- he was an imaginary character and there was no need for him to experience shame if that was actually reducing his income generation by taking up precious time and steps and reducing his maximum output.
If anything, it was funny to see how most people -- even with robot routines imposed on them - kept to their offline culture -- they insisted on toilets removed from workplaces and eating areas and insisted on doors and walls; they didn't want gambling and cheating because that "ruined the fun," and they chose esthetic beauty of their homes and stores rather than maximized job production or Sim recovery. It is very hard to eradicate human culture and spirit.
One of the aspects Will Wright built into the game which caused universal havoc was "Friendship Balloons". This was my first experience of the social graph -- unfortunately, I don't seem to have any screenshots left and I can't find any online today although surely someone has one, given their huge importance to this virtual world.
Everyone had a "balloon graph" or social graph that showed visually who they were friends with, how good and close their friendship was, and who their enemies were. So each time I met someone, I could choose an option to hand them a balloon, and we would be linked by "friendship". Our balloons would start out bright green in colour, but if we didn't keep visiting each others' homes, and didn't keep interacting, say, by dancing the jitterbug or at least chatting and shaking each others' hands once in awhile, the green would fade, the once-bright balloon would fall to the bottom of the graph, and then even disappear beneath pages and pages of such balloon stories.
By the same token, if someone came and slapped me or "gloved me" as the game mechanics showed, i.e. throwing down a gauntlet, then our relationship would be recorded as red. Someone would have to come back again and "piledrive" or otherwise use negative attacks on me to keep the red in -- otherwise, it, too, would fade.
The balloons picked up not only people you actually friended with the balloon gesture, it picked up other metadata -- other people who simply happened to be at the same job location or club location as you. So if you walked into a bar, all the other people would "show up in your balloons" and show up faintly as green -- if you didn't interact with them in any way, they would fade and drop down in the pages and ultimately disappear.
Naturally this system was gamed and led to horrible consequences for its players -- and even attracted the attention of real-life media.
The game designer himself -- Will Wright on his alts -- was the first one to pollute it by buying friendship -- he paid 100 simoleons to people to friend him, so he could gather more balloons and move up the friendship list -- there were leaderboards as in all games. We could also tell that he had friended -- or accepted 100 from -- Mia Wallace, the most notorious mafia queen who ran the Sim Shadow Government which ultimately took over and ruined the Sims Online for many people with its corruption and terror -- I've always thought Will Wright deliberately allowed evil to enter his world "to see what would happen" and to see how the human spirit would attempt to overcome it (which it did, but just not sufficiently, in part because of constraints in TSO's own rules, chief of which was suppression of press freedom -- because the game company felt it couldn't check rumours and police libel, you were not allowed to report the bad behaviour of any other individual or group on the forums, and that meant no one could ever warn other players or rally against the Shadow Government.)
Besides buying friendship, what happened is that virtual wives soon discovered their virtual husbands were cheating on them -- they would see a suspiciously green balloon at the top of their boyfriend's pages -- was he dancing the jitterbug just a little too often with that certain Sim?
Another negative side effect was that people came deliberately to slap you to "red up your balloons" -- and it would spoil your reputation because people thought perhaps you got into bar fights or didn't cooperate sufficiently on group job objects and were "trouble". Some people automatically ejected from their establishments anyone who entered with a lot of red balloons in their pack.
People would endlessly study these balloon graphs --and I mean endlessly -- you could tell at a glance who was a friend or foe of whom by red or green status. They would see who were the most green; they would be jealous over literal greenness if a special friend didn't "keep them in their balloons". They would deliberately go over and try to socialize to keep certain popular people "at the top of their balloons". They would avoid others and push them down the pages out of sight.
Of course, all of this had the extra added headache or pleasure, depending on how you looked at it, of "mapping" and the option to "map" or "not map" a friend and give out those permissions. So you could open up the world's master map, and spot where your friends were, and teleport to them to keep green -- or they could block you, so you couldn't find them and keep up that green -- and would have to guess where they might be -- perhaps by checking their balloons and see who was in their inner, greenest circle -- and then guess where that person might be and teleport there. People naturally developed all kinds of mapping strategems -- knowing that people had to keep up their jitterbug and piledriving skills, they would go to the skill lots where these skills had to be kept up by interacting with various objects, and then head there.
As all MMORPG players know, there are always a set of concerted players who want to nerf or dumb down or disable the negative features of games -- so it wasn't long before people began to lobby to get rid of the "red balloons" idea as it harmed their reputations and some were deliberately going around gloving others to make them look bad.
By the time we migrated to Second Life or There or other open-ended social worlds, the balloons had been replaced by friendship cards, but these were not made visible. So it wasn't long before some bright young coder thought it would be great to design what he called the SL Wristwatch which would track all the people near you within 96 meters, track how often you were in each other's proximity, and then post this online so that people essentially could make the same kind of TSO balloons in rough fashion.
But very soon people began to howl. The online edition of these early social graphs that existed before Twitter was born, before Facebook was widely used and popular -- in 2004-2005 -- showed up people that other people didn't want their friends to know about. The same problem developed -- a sim wife would find that her sim husband was shown 96m near his old girlfriend or near some other woman and that became suspicious.
Or enemies or griefers who wanted to discredit others would keep showing up in their 96m range to make it look like they were friends, constantly showing their proximity.
This proximity data would be used to find out where the most people were and where they went hte most; who was the most popular; who was related to them, and of course led to friendship and influence seeking behaviour. But it was fairly rapidly shut down -- just like years later GirlsNearMe was shut down for the same privacy-exposing behaviour.
Then the next scandal involved another "improvement" on this proximity data -- now the IP addresses of every one coming to the sim were collected, and this led not only to showing who was with who, but it also outed alts -- people with the exact same IP address (and yes, many are in fact dynamic, or fluctuate within a close enough range) but who had different alt accounts would be outed.Also their habits would be on display -- if they went to a gay club or shopped at a BDSM mall.
So there was an enormous outcry over this privacy-stripping function -- even in a virtual world where most people were anonymous -- or thought they were. And this function was banned.
Activists in worlds and games who tried to stop greedy coders from scraping enormous amounts of data and displaying it in order to change behaviours -- all as ultimately a marketing test -- were strong enough to stop some of the geek game-god practices but didn't have enough social cohesion and sophistication and power to be able to stop them more broadly as they moved from games to social networks.
No one complained when Barack Obama drilled the social graphs everywhere to construct polling data and organize massive Get Out the Vote phone calls based on issues or demographics -- Obama for America grabbed all that right off the top, mixed it and drilled it and won, then morphed into Organizing for Action, and took all that data with them, and few complained that a Democratic Party candidate had now taken with him for his private use in a nonprofit the people's data gathered in a national election.
Those to the hard left or hard right of even "progressive" Obama only complained when the NSA, an institution with far more checks and balances and compliance with the rule of law than game or virtual world companies or social media compaines or OFA did this lawfully in pursuit of criminals.
No one complained when the chief of police in Steubenville gathered social media and cell phone data, texts and photographs, and used it to prosecute two young men who had raped a girl at a party. If anything, Anonymous, which used brutal vigilante tactics to out many others in the social graph with these men and this girl, falsely accusing innocent people and permanently ruining the lives even of those who were rightly disciplined or prosecuted with this case, was applauded by feminists for "getting" those football team members with "rape culture". The kind of "rape culture" that coders routinely disdainfully indulge in when a company or government is hacked, and they blame the victim for wearing too short a skirt, i.e. failing to salt or hash data base tables.
Today, when anthropologist Katy Pearce routinely collects openly-available Twitter accounts and elaborately tracks who has tweeted to whom about what in Nodex and other programs, nobody complains except me. She can claim to out government informants or pro-government supporters with these methods by seeing what they say and to whom, although I've cautioned, being even more a supporter of independent (as distinct from GONGO-ized) civil society than she is in Azerbaijan, that people sitting on the fence, or ordinary people still shaping their opinion, or people who just might not like the opposition for various reasons, can be mistaken in these methods for "pro-government" and in fact alienated and not won over by the movement. There are also many alts and bots polluting the information but you can't always tell the difference.