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.