The social network you can’t opt out of

By Felix Salmon
February 12, 2013

As befits a company backed by a Who’s Who of Wall Street names, Relationship Science has tapped Andrew Ross Sorkin as the vehicle of choice for its big public unveiling.

The idea behind RelSci is that if you’re one of the 2 million most important people in the business world, there’s a huge amount of public knowledge out there already regarding the people you know and are connected to. You don’t need to connect with them on Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn; RelSci knows who you know anyway, just like IMDB knows who has appeared in a movie with Kevin Bacon.

What’s essentially happening here is that the network which connects us all — the true, real-world social network, which has existed as long as humanity — is now being mapped without our consent, and being sold back to masters of the universe for the low, low price of $3,000 a year. As Mark Zuckerberg will tell you, there’s enormous value in networks. And although RelSci can’t control the real world in the way that Zuckerberg controls Facebook, it has the advantage that it includes the most powerful and important people you could ever want to get in touch with, from Lloyd Blankfein to the president of the United States.

Of course, there are no guarantees here. I’m friends with Ezra Klein on Twitter (or whatever it’s called when two people follow each other) — I’m sure that’s in the RelSci database. And Ezra, as Julia Ioffe says today, talks to the president: that’s public too. So does that mean I’m just one degree of separation from the president? Not really. I’d never ask Ezra to tell the president anything on my behalf, and if I did ask, he’d say no.

But for some relationships, RelSci could be very effective. Once you get to friends of friends of friends — two degrees of separation or more — I think it’s pretty useless. But friends of colleagues? That can be very powerful. If I’m a relationship banker, say, and I want to sit down with a CEO, I need someone to effect an introduction, and it’s possible — probable, even — that I’m quite unaware how many of my friends are directly connected to that CEO. Alternatively, if I’m in the midst of fraught deal negotiations, and talks are breaking down, RelSci could be invaluable in finding someone who’s close to, and trusted by, the principals on both sides of the table.

RelSci is initially targeting its product at Wall Street and the nonprofit sector, which has long spent enormous amounts of time and effort putting together detailed dossiers on potential donors and the people who might be able to influence them. But I suspect that DC lobbyists are going to be lining up to subscribe, if only for the way that RelSci might be able to turbocharge their opposition research. “Privacy by obscurity” isn’t working for Julia Angwin any more on Facebook, and it’s not going to work for politicians and business leaders in real life much longer, either. It used to be that our web of personal connections was known only to ourselves; those days are over, whether we like it or not.

My guess is that RelSci won’t last as an independent company for long: it will probably be acquired, with Facebook, LinkedIn, and Bloomberg at the top of the list of possible buyers. My own employer, too, might be interested: we already have a product called Westlaw PeopleMap which is not dissimilar. If Google buys RelSci, it might even open up the entire database to the world for free. But even if it doesn’t, it’s clear that we’re still at the early days of drawing real-world connections between real-world people. Over time, the RelSci network, or the companies which try to copy it, will get bigger, and the price of accessing it is likely to fall to zero surprisingly quickly.

Which means that even if you unfriend everybody on Facebook, and you never join Twitter, and you don’t have a LinkedIn profile or an About.me page or much else in the way of online presence, you’re still going to end up being mapped and charted and slotted in to your rightful place in the global social network that is life. People are going to make money from your social connections whether you like it or not. Unfortunately, it seems that in the first instance, those people are going to have names like Henry Kravis, Ron Perelman, and Ken Langone.

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