Notes Toward A Social-Network Schema

February 4, 2014

Modeling a social networking system like LiveJournal or Facebook in a JSON-document-oriented database like Couchbase [Lite] or CouchDB isn’t hard. Here’s a basic schema that I’ve been playing with for a while.

Schema

Top level items are document types (generally distinguished by a reserved type field), nested items are properties.

  • Persona
    • nickname
    • Full name (optional)
    • userpic (optional)
    • bio (optional)
  • Relation
    • author ID
    • target persona ID
    • relation types (one or more of: follows, friend, …)
  • Post
    • author ID
    • date created
    • date updated (only if edited)
    • privacy (public / friends-only / …)
    • body
    • post type (text / quote / picture / audio…)
    • media attachments (optional depending on post type)
  • Comment
    • author ID
    • post ID
    • date created
    • body

Notes

Properties that say “ID” contain the ID of the target document (much like a SQL foreign key.) “Author ID” specifically means the ID of the Persona who created/owns the document.

Documents can only be created or updated by the user listed in the ‘author ID’ property (or the doc ID in the case of a Persona.)

Note that this means that relations are one-directional and always point outward: you specify how you relate to someone. Some relationship types are intrinsically bi-directional, like “friend” or “sibling”, and have to be declared in both directions to be considered valid.

I’ve been using the XFN schema as a source of relationship types. It contains a ridiculous number; these might be appropriate for something like Facebook, but for a more casual system like tumblr or Twitter the only one you really need is “follows”.

“Body” properties should probably be tagged with a markup type to distinguish between formats like plain text, Markdown, HTML, and bloggy-HTML (i.e. with hard linebreaks.)

The “post type” is mostly a hint to trigger different visual styling of the post, a la tumblr and other tumble-logs.

“Media attachments” would be, literally, attachments in Couchbase Lite or CouchDB. Other databases might need to use URLs instead and host the media externally.

A “like” / “heart” / “+1” can be treated as a comment with no body.

If you generalize the comment “post ID” property to be able to point to things other than posts, you can easily get hierarchical/threaded comments (comment-on-comment) or “wall” posts (comment-on-persona).

If posts can be non-public, the server needs to limit access to them. Specifically, a “friends-only” type of post should be readable only by people that the post’s author has the right kind of published relationship to, and obviously a “private” post can only be read by its author. (This is basically infeasible with CouchDB, which doesn’t support per-document read access control. The Couchbase Sync Gateway does support it.)

Limitations

Comment free-for-all: In this model anyone can comment on any post just by publishing a comment targeted at it. There are obvious social problems with that. A workaround is to have the post itself contain an array of “approved comment” IDs; this requires that the post author or her software moderate comments and update the post to add new ones. The UI would generally only display the comments in that list.

Replication/P2P: This schema will suffice in a centralized system where the server can enforce authenticity and limit the visibility of non-public posts. Once you add replication, things get trickier. Authenticating a document requiress that it be signed by its author, which in turn means a Persona document needs to contain a certificate or a public key, which in turn requires some mechanism (a PKI) for so you can verify that a Persona refers to the person you think it does. Also, non-public posts will require encryption if they’re ever to be replicated through intermediary servers that don’t have read access to them.