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Posted by on Jan 18, 2013 in Featured, Science & Technology, Society | 1 comment

Facebook Graph Search: You can run but you can’t hide

Facebook users “can no longer opt out of search results entirely.”

Earlier this week, Facebook announced “Graph Search,” which “allows users to enter a query on Facebook and get answers based on cross-sections of information within their social network.”

Zuckerberg described “people, photos, places, and interests” as four potential search dimensions for graph search. Zuckerberg used the intersections of these areas to see Mexican restaurants his friends had been to in the Palo Alto area, as well as to find the best-liked photo of him and his wife in order to decide which one to use on a Christmas card. Graph search queries use phrases rather than keywords: “Friends who like Star Wars and Harry Potter” was one example.

Sounds innocuous, yes?

In December, Facebook changed its privacy policy in a way that makes this week’s announcement possible, even though the majority of Facebook users who voted said “no.”

According to Zachary M. Seward at

At the time of the change, Facebook product director Sam Lessin said “a single-digit percentage of users” had opted out of appearing in search results on Facebook. The site has more than a billion users, so 1% is 10 million people. The company didn’t respond to inquiries today.

This latest development is part of a not-very-long evolution:

Graph Search can be seen as the spoils of Facebook’s long, sometimes painful effort to move from explicit sharing (e.g., changing a favorite movie listed on your profile) to “frictionless sharing” (letting Facebook tell your friends what song you’re listening to on Spotify right now).

Josh Constine at TechCrunch reminds us:

Facebook’s mission has long been “making the world more open and connected,” but until now, Facebook’s service has been better at connecting us to our friends.


When Facebook launched the news feed in late 2006, 750,000 of its 12 million users joined a group protesting the feature. They claimed that while all the stories in the news feed were only shown to people their authors allowed, it violated their “privacy through obscurity.” The effort that was required to find something on Facebook before news feed was protection enough. Despite concerns, people eventually grew to cherish the information stream.

Facebook went through another round of grumbling when it launched Timeline. Suddenly old posts could be dug up much more easily. But again, there was a degree of protection from employers, family, and romantic interests thanks to the friction of browsing through years of content in search of something offensive.

When Graph Search rolls out publicly, we may see the same sense of violation, but magnified by the ease of search. Before you might have shared something widely or publicly that might damage your reputation — a drunk photo, a controversial article, a joke in poor taste — but you’d assume its audience would typically be people who got your updates in the news feed.

Graph Search’s efficiency penetrates the armor of friction to discovery. A recruiter doesn’t have to comb years of Timeline. They can search for photos you’ve taken in Cancun. They can search for “people named Josh Constine interested in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.” And soon Facebook plans to index posts, meaning all your status updates and links can be dredged up.

And maybe the privacy issues are moot: Facebook’s Graph Search is not very useful says Heather Kelly, CNN.

Much of Graph Search’s power and problems start with the Like button. People just don’t wield the Like as often and as discerningly as is needed to turn Facebook into a useful recommendation tool. It’s also too easy for those deep-pocketed companies who can afford to maintain a social media presence to buy more likes and come out on top.

A search for Mexican restaurants that my friends like here in San Francisco shows 12 options, most with just one friend’s thumbs up. By comparison, Yelp has 543 reviews with star ratings for the El Castillito taqueria in San Francisco, while Facebook has 97 likes (none from my friends), and a few scattered wall posts on a sparse unofficial landing page.

And that’s the head-to-head example that explains what Mark Zuckerburg is trying to do.

Graph Search introduces new ways to search Facebook that are great in theory. The tool works amazingly well in the idealized Zuckerbergian world where all Facebook members are real people who complete their profiles honestly and update them frequently.

But in reality, the data people share on Facebook is flawed and incomplete. And so is Graph Search, at least for now.

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