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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Graph Search Could Be Great If Facebook Weren't in Charge of It

Posted By on Tue, Jan 22, 2013 at 10:15 AM

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It's possible that Facebook's new Graph Search will turn the Internet on its head. The problem is that the people in charge of it are the same people who are in charge of Facebook, so it's almost guaranteed to somehow turn out badly. It could be a crappy service, a scarily intrusive service, or both.

Facebook's default is that its users and their interests are meaningless. We've seen evidence of this with nearly every change Facebook has made. The company stomps all over its users' privacy, and then -- apparently going by the "it's easier to apologize than to ask permission" ethic -- backing down or changing up. Let us never forget that Mark Zuckerberg, when he was still developing "The Facebook" at Harvard, bragged about having access to all his classmates' personal information. He wrote in an instant message that was later publicly disclosed: "they trust me. dumb fucks."

Zuckerberg has said that he has matured since then, which of course he has. He's become smarter. He might even have become more ethical -- but to what degree? We know that Facebook has a long history of treating its users as (ironically enough) faceless entities to be exploited. Just this month, the company settled a lawsuit over its use of users' names and pictures in "Sponsored Stories" (advertisements) without their permission.

What's more, Facebook's doings are incredibly opaque. Its "Promoted Posts" initiative forces owners of pages to pay if they want all their updates to be seen by all their followers. People's newsfeeds were suddenly bereft of posts from pages they had liked. But last week, updates from all my pages started showing up en masse in my newsfeed. Why? Who knows? But it has since stopped happening.

And now there's all kinds of funky stuff happening with "Likes," the foundation upon which Graph Search is being built. The idea is to make Facebook the center of most people's Internet experience in a way that Google now is. Google is the guide to the wide Internet. Facebook wants to be the guide to your life. So supposedly with Graph Search we'll be able to use Facebook like a database to find dates, jobs, good restaurants, movie recommendations, etc. You'll be able to search on "Single women in the Mission ages 23 to 29 who like indie rock and action movies," and up will pop a list of such women. Or you can search your friends or friends of friends, or all Facebook users in your area, or some subset of them, to find a good Thai restaurant.

The utility of Graph Search is potentially great (and will no doubt carry lots of unintended consequences.) But early reviews of some users who have early access to it are mixed at best. "Not very good," declared Rachel Metz at Technology Review, though she does note the fact that sites like LinkedIn and Monster might be facing a big threat from Graph Search's apparently superior job-seeking and headhunting abilities.

But since "Likes" and check-ins are the engine upon which Graph Search runs, it is by nature imperfect. If somebody hasn't liked something (for instance "indie rock" and "action movies" in the above example), they won't be part of the results, even if they actually, in real life, like indie rock and action movies. The Perfect Woman, thus, will be elusive.

Furthermore, the more Facebook keeps mucking around with and mismanaging its users' behavior, the less prone people will be to "like" stuff. The latest atrocity is that people are liking things they've never actually liked. It's hard to know precisely what's going on here (whether people are gaming the system, Facebook is gaming its users, or both), but if you're married and suddenly it pops up in your friends' news feeds that you've liked Match.com, that could mean big trouble for you. If that happens enough, a large number of people will stop liking things, and Graph Search will in the long run be a lot less valuable -- to users, to advertisers, and to Facebook itself.


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Dan Mitchell

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