Facebook Graph Search: What it means for you (video)

When Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook Graph Search on Tuesday, he said that the new feature—which remains in beta and isn’t yet available to most users—will "give people the power and the tools they need to search through the content on the site.”

IDG News Service
CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduces Facebook Graph Search at a press event.

Facebook already offers a search feature, of course. You can use it to find other people, pages, and Facebook content. What the company says makes Graph Search different is its power to combine different streams of Facebook data. You might search for “people near me who like The West Wing,” “friends of friends who went to Harvard,” “music my friends like,” or even “music my friends who like Weird Al Yankovic like.”

Your search results can be further refined—to show only females, or single females, for instance. If your Facebook Creepiness Radar is beeping, you’re probably not alone. But those beeps may be uncalled for.

What’s in it from me?

If you’re the sort who cares about privacy and protecting personal data, the good news with Graph Search is that it appears to respect your existing privacy settings: You’re only surfaced in results for people whom you’ve already said are allowed to see you, and only data you’ve indicated can be shared with a particular searcher will be included in his or her search results.

Suppose you’re a supremely private Facebook user. You limit your status updates, likes, and other sharing on the network only to your carefully curated friends list. Do you have anything to gain from Graph Search? Quite possibly.

That’s because Graph Search will, for the first time, make it possible to search your own Facebook history. You can search for “videos I liked” or “photos that Dan posted that I liked,” for example. And you could, in theory, use the search tool to get aggregated friend recommendations, too: You can search for doctors, restaurants, or movies that your friends have endorsed—so long as that endorsement came in the form of a click on a Facebook Like button.

That’s the sort of recommendation, straight from your self-selected social circle, that sends folks at companies like Yelp reach for their Alka-Seltzer. But maybe it shouldn’t.

What’s in a Like?

It’s hard to say precisely how useful Graph Search’s results will be until we can actually access real results; right now, my own experience is limited to a couple sample searches that Facebook let me try out. But one key question will be how meaningful the results really are, as determined by how trustworthy individual “likes” are.

For example: Zuckerberg said at Facebook’s press conference that if you search the graph for dentists liked by your friends, you yourself can click Like on individual results that show up. But why would you do so?

If you’re clicking Like on a dentist that you indeed already know and like, then the search results may well not have been especially useful; you were previously familiar with the doctor you found. If you’re instead clicking Like on a dentist just because your friends liked the tooth checker, how meaningful is your freshly-echoed endorsement?

Beyond that: How discerning have you—and, more importantly, your friends—been with their doling out of likes to date? If we’ve been a bit loose with our Like trigger fingers, the results may be skewed towards what we clicked on, as opposed to what we actually liked.

Who needs this?

Let’s posit for a moment every Like in recorded Facebook history is meaningful and genuine. Now what?

Sure, it could be cool to search across your Facebook friends list for music recommendations, or people near you who might also like playing Madden on the Wii, or folks who like the same leisure activities. But is this really where modern friendship is going?

If your Facebook friends list is limited to your actual friends, it’s likely that you already know which friends of yours share your interests. Have you often found yourself wondering, “Which of my friends shares my interest in kayaking?”, or has that overlapping interest made itself apparent to you already over the course of your actual friendship?

And if instead your friends list on Facebook is bursting with people whom you don’t actually consider friends, or even acquaintances, it remains to be seen both how useful their recommendations will be, and whether you’ll even care that some of these near-strangers also play the harmonica.

Who will use it?

Despite Facebook’s privacy assurances surrounding Graph Search, one thing will certainly prove true: Many folks, with a special emphasis on younger people, share either more than they realize on Facebook, or more than they ought to (as defined by, say, a typical adult’s sense of decorum).

While some will undoubtedly use Graph Search to discover new and interesting friends, establishments, and even interests, the tool’s focus on refining results will inevitably lead to it being a power tool for creeps, too. Refining results by gender, relationship status, and location is, even with the best of intentions, a bit creepy.

That said, this kind of data exploration is a crux of Facebook’s strategy, and it’s not likely that the obvious creepy potential will deter the company of its existent course. In fact, the company already gets its advertisers access to much of this kind of data already—albeit a bit more anonymized. If anything, then, one nearly inescapable eventual outcome of Graph Search will be that people end up starting to take their Facebook privacy a bit more seriously. And that’s definitely a good thing.

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