Facebook’s search has been found

January 16, 2013

With “Graph Search,” Facebook’s newsearch engine announced Tuesday, the world’s largest social network has finally begun to index a trove of Big Data that’s been piling up for years. Even Facebook probably doesn’t know what’s been deposited in by its 1 billion members. Suddenly there is a way to find out. 

For all its popularity, Facebook has lacked something that could be described as “purpose.” For co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, sharing isn’t a platitude ‑ it’s world-altering. As he once said: “By giving people the power to share, we’re making the world more transparent.” Yet Facebook is, for the most part, fun and games. It’s also, in the opinion of some, including me, a Faustian bargain that gives the company valuable information with which to make money, and its members the ability to do things they can do any number of other ways. 

For all the information Facebook members share with one another — pictures, opinions, “likes,” preferences, the companies and celebrities they follow — none of it has been searchable. So if you have friends who like science fiction and live nearby, you wouldn’t have known it (unless you, you know, knew it), and that Avatar movie night wouldn’t have happened – or, worse, would have happened alone, like always.

The sum of all that information makes it much more valuable than its parts, not only to Facebook but also to its members. That’s why Graph Search makes Facebook membership an entirely new proposition, compelling not just because of some raw network effect ‑ all my friends are there, so I have to be ‑ but because you can now be discovered by strangers who can do things for you, like offer you a job.

This new relationship could go a long way toward tempering privacy concerns at Facebook, which maximizes sharing and minimizes discussion of sharing’s pitfalls. I suspect the vast majority of Facebook members are blithely indifferent to the extent to which their lives are open books, even as they do things on the larger Web, not realizing they’re being logged on Facebook. It’s pretty clear that Facebook’s members largely don’t care about the consequences of a privacy breach until it happens. 

Graph Search may be just the gentle persuasion Facebook members need to seriously manage their privacy settings, and thus give Facebook more cover in the privacy tango.

And if profile management becomes a more rigorous pursuit, then Facebook’s internal search transforms Facebook into a more professional-oriented site. “Facebooking” yourself may replace “Googling” yourself as the gold standard in vanity search, if only because you’ll be more concerned about seeing yourself as others see you. Your social life would become more compartmentalized to a small circle of confidants — Graph Search is designed to respect individual privacy settings — while you give your professional identity, and all of its poise and polish, more prominence. 

Facebook with Graph Search could remain a playground for the college crowd while giving grown-ups a bigger reason to stay and share even more about themselves. And now it needn’t be a deal with the devil but a collaboration, where the payoff is simple and direct. You wouldn’t just be the product anymore, fodder sold to third parties, but a full participant in a market made and facilitated by Facebook. 

By virtue of making information more manageable, Facebook transforms itself into a lifetime social network whose members were hooked as teenagers. It’s a reason to become more engaged ‑ suddenly there is a purpose.

Graph Search is still in limited beta release, so it will be some time before the competitive threat to Google or the business-focused social network LinkedIn (where I am a consulting editor) can be assessed. Share prices in both companies fell after Facebook’s announcement Thursday. Yelp also got hit, on the theory that better awareness of restaurant recommendations on Facebook might weaken that service’s appeal.

It is the nature of technological disruption that a company eventually comes along and finds a way to elicit actions that were waiting to happen but didn’t have an outlet. As Wired‘s Steven Levy puts it, “The mark of a transformative product is that it gets you to do more of something that you wouldn’t think to do on your own.”

With the development of Graph Search, the irony of Facebook’s own timeline continues. Once the most exclusive private network in the world, it’s now the biggest public network the world has ever seen. And after years of prodding, cajoling and tricking people into sharing, Facebook is finally sharing back.

PHOTO: Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg introduces a new feature called “Graph Search” during a media event at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California January 15, 2013. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith


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What difference does it make what new spin they put on their “big data” when all that advertising revenue never adds a penny to the shares worth in terms of dividends. The stock doesn’t pay dividends and all this dubious “innovation” is really just hype.

It’s still a highly manipulated insider stock.

This kids is a cheap knockoff of P.T. Barnum. P.T. Barnum was a snappier dresser.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Mr Abell, thanks for the well-written article. I also enjoyed your other piece, “Facebook’s passive-aggressive friendship.” Mark Zuckerberg likes to say that Facebook is “1% done” so it’s interesting to read some rational speculation about what they might become.

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive