Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

More Thoughts on Developing a Social Network "Portable Relationship Map" Standard

More Thoughts on Developing a Social Network "Portable Relationship Map" Standard

By Dennis D. McDonald

A couple of days ago I posted Do We Need “Portable Relationship Maps” for Social Networks? There I expressed some skepticism about the feasibility of developing a standard for mapping social and professional relationships, over and above basic personal description or identity data, that could be portable between social networking systems.

Perhaps my skepticism was misplaced. Chuck Allen of the HR-XML Consortium has posted The Future of Social Networking: Places or Platforms? There he comments on social networking from that organization’s perspective. It’s a good read.

The HR-XML Consortium focuses on electronic interchange of HR (human relations) data and has the following stated purpose:

The mission of the HR-XML Consortium is to spare employers and vendors the risk and expense of having to negotiate and agree upon data interchange mechanisms on an ad-hoc basis. By developing and publishing open data exchange standards based on Extensible Markup Language (“XML”), the Consortium provides the means for any company to transact with other companies without having to establish, engineer, and implement many separate interchange mechanisms.

The Consortium, open to paying members only, not only provides a forum for the  development of the HR-XML standard, it also provides a certification process by which members’ adherence to the standard can be vouched for. It also provides tools that can be used to validate that a member’s software adheres to the standard.

Might such an industry based approach work in the context of the dozens of social networking tools that have emerged in recent years?

Technically, yes. In practical terms, I don’t know. Here are my initial thoughts and questions; perhaps readers can suggest more (leave a comment below or email me at

The HR-XML Consortium has developed a library of more than 100 interdependent “XML schemas.” XML Schemas define the data elements and usage for specified HR transactions. Examples are Benefits Enrollment, CompetencyTypes (which provides a framework for exchanging data on competencies based on accepted competency taxonomies), Education History, Employment History, and Resume.

It’s easy to see how useful standard processes for exchanging data among the different participants would be when you consider all the organization types that might need to touch on HR data including employers, potential employers, hiring agencies, credit and background checkers, insurance companies, and many others. In other words, there is an institutional focus on streamlining and standardizing  not unlike the well established standards and guidelines surrounding the use of EDI in many different industries and supply chain applications.

Would the same impetus exist for standardizing on the way that personal relationships are defined in order to simplify an individual’s “movement” from one social network to another?

That’s where I draw a blank, for a couple of reasons:

  1. The lack of a standard definition of “relationships.”  Such a definition can be based on many different factors including blood relationship, employment, serving on the same committee, social friendship, level of mutual trust and confidence, etc. Some of these are quantifiable, some are not.
  2. The need for privacy management. This includes consideration of different government regulations (e.g., European regulations concerning data privacy are different from those of the U.S.) as well as different personal preferences (e.g., on member of a relationship might be willing to reveal a relationship while another is not). Can such differences be reconciled?
  3. The fuzzy distinction between personal and professional relationships. Some people prefer to keep business and social relationships separate, some are comfortable with blending the to, and some don’t really care. Could such diverse interests be reconciled in the sharing of relationship information between social networks?
  4. Competition between social networks. Just has Microsoft has found competitive advantage through promotion of file formats, why should, say, Facebook make it easy for people to leave in droves and join Ning, their “friends” and “groups” lists intact? What’s the incentive to Facebook to openly standardize on relationship definitions and group definitions?
  5. Competition between corporations. Just as I believe social media and social networking are becoming standard features throughout large (and small) organizations, I also believe that organizations are growing in awareness of the value (to organizational performance, innovation, and efficiency) of the network of relationships people cultivate on the job. These networks are complex and cut across organizational, geographic, and political boundaries. Since these relationship networks help define the competitive advantage the organization derives from its employees, what incentive does the organization have to standardize on how these relationships can be shared?

Items 3 and 5 in the above list are, in my opinion, the strongest reason not to develop “industry standards” for exchanging information about relationships among social networks. But I readily admit to a bias because (a) I tend to keep professional and social relationships separate, and (b) I’m all for large organizations adopting social media and social networking technologies. If you have some different thoughts on this, please leave a comment below!

Copyright (c) 2007 by Dennis D. McDonald



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