“Come see what we’re building,” read the coy invite Facebook sent out to reporters for its mystery announcement Tuesday. In the end, it came down to one magic, if predictable, word: search.
After the profile and then Timeline, Graph Search, a project born way back in 2011, represents the third major lens through which we experience Facebook's version of the web. This was bound to happen: since its inception, the social network has lacked a robust search function, a way to take full advantage of the (in)famous, all-knowing social graph. What's the name of that girl you met at your friend's party who makes art and lives in Baltimore? All our data is only useful if you can find it, easily and quickly. It was on this single premise that Google built its empire (and for which it has been investigated, repeatedly, by government regulators): if you can map the territory, you can control it.
But Facebook has always had access to the kind of data Google could only dream of, the personal subjective yin to plain vanilla search’s objective yang. Not just links, but Likes, a digital currency exchanged by over a billion people on the planet. By now, Facebook’s coveted Social Graph is comprised of more than 240 billion photos and one trillion connections.
This not only makes Facebook’s search function fundamentally different, it also transcends Google’s many limitations. Google struggles with chronology. Newer things are easy to find. Older things can be impossible. By triangulating our friends, Likes, photos and status updates, Graph Search could conceivably pinpoint a moment in time while capturing our needs, interests and questionable haircuts. That seems like a big deal.
Transformative, even. It's an ideal that ex-Googler Lars Rasmussen, who spearheaded the project, is no stranger to. He’s the father of the app that Apple should never have fucked with, Google Maps, along with the inspired Google Wave, a project that prompted a standing ovation from the techies at its launch, but which was ultimately ignored by just about everyone else.
Zuckerberg and Rasmussen
In Graph Search, Rasmussen has a built-in audience and an opportunity to build what he considers the next great “pillar” of the world’s biggest social network. By analyzing our web of preferences, Facebook can produce results that translate intuitively into the real world. The Chinese restaurants in New York City that my friends who are from China Like. Hosting an event in Seattle for American soccer fans? Finding out which of your friends of friends like the band whose concert you suddenly have extra tickets to? Here’s your target audience (although you might have to pay to message some of these friends of friends of friends). And if most people find jobs through someone they know, is all of this not a recruiter’s wet dream? LinkedIn may have some soul searching to do.
In other ways, Graph Search enhances the basic Facebook experience. From the wholesome: photos of my family in 2010? To the creepy: friends of friends in San Francisco who went to NYU and who are single?
In theory at least. As it stands, Facebook has yet to flesh out the concept. Many of the searches included in the official demo were novel but not so practical. These people Like Star Wars and Harry Potter? Me too? Watching the demo, I wondered why I’d ever actually use any of this. Yet this is Facebook’s natural territory, getting us to communicate and give up more to the machine in unprecedented ways. Now that the stock price has stabilized, there’s time to figure things out.
The bigger problem is the question of quality. How good is Facebook’s data? And how much value is in a Like? For fervent Facebookers, the feature may flourish. But what about for others, who increasingly post their professional information on LinkedIn, their reviews on Yelp, their photos on Instagram, their memes on Tumblr, the things that they’re into on Pinterest and their thoughts on Twitter? In that case, your mileage may vary, Facebook readily admits and indeed, it hopes Graph Search won't just make use of Likes, but make you start Liking more.
Visualizing the social graph (Amber Case / Flickr)
“There are now new reasons to make these connections. We’re hoping the existence of that will encourage it,” said Tom Stocky, director of product management at Facebook. “But absolutely, early on, that [your degree of connectedness] will make the experience you have with this vary.”
In other words, Graph Search will only work if we Facebook more.
It’s the classic network dilemma, but one that Mark Zuckerberg has overcome in the past where others haven’t. That isn’t to say he has the Midas touch either. No one uses Facebook email. But if their messaging service was a carbon copy of other platforms out there, Graph Search is uniquely Facebook. It’s also a seductive wink at Wall Street, which will ogle over the service’s straightforward monetization opportunities. From a privacy perspective, this could be a good thing. If Facebook can profit from these search queries, the company can worry less about selling our personal information to advertisers and more about repackaging our countless connections for us, the users. It's why Google appears to do less evil: it doesn't appear to be as invasive (even if, as Google Plus and every personalized Google product prove, it wants to be--maybe because it always knew that Facebook had designs on search.)
Facebook already has swaths of data to work with, bolstered by its efforts at "frictionless" sharing. Spotify, Instagram, and now, thanks to Obama, Netflix also, are gold mines of personal data; their fruits will show up in one form or another in Related Searches and who knows where else. Combined with the power of Bing, Microsoft's little engine that could, the announcement will surely have Google looking over its shoulder. And it could be very useful for us too--but only if we Like it.