What does Facebook’s graph search say about the world we live in?

What is graph search, you might be thinking? Graph Search is basically a semantic search engine that can give results based on natural question queries rather than just search terms or, in Facebook’s case, a name. This might just sound like a casual upgrade to Facebook’s search capability for the users. But it really isn’t. It’s a an overhaul of search functionality.

An example: with Facebook’s original search you could search a name. And often, because Facebook has a lot of users, you would be greeted with a number of results for that search. At this point you could go through the results profile by profile looking for the person you’re after, or narrow down the search to location, education, or employer. But often this was not entirely helpful either — sometimes you don’t know, sometimes that information is not present on their profiles; there are a plethora of possibilities. So Graph search aims to help.

At its unveiling at the beginning of this year, CEO and co-founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg talked about Facebook as a large database, stating “The Newsfeed answers the question ‘What’s going on?’ and Timeline answers ‘Who is this person?’ But what about everything else? We’ll be able to answer other questions using something called Graph Search.”

So what does Graph Search do exactly? Well, you give it a relevant search query, and it responds with results. You can search for “women under 35 who live in Auckland, attended Auckland University, and like skiing” and it will give you results based on these queries. You can also ask graph search things related to check-ins (“Friends who have checked-in at Imperial Lane”). As well as this, you can apply queries with time restrictions, such as “photos of my friends before 1990”.

As you may have guessed, this feature has promoted quite a bit of kerfuffle about privacy. As we have written in many of our other blogs, privacy is a significant issue, especially regarding Facebook, as so many of us use it, and Graph Search makes finding individuals inexplicably easier. You could probably narrow down enough information about a person from only meeting them once to find them on Facebook. However, it’s been on its way for a while: graph search just makes us more vulnerable to something that we have always (since we joined Facebook, anyway) and for the foreseeable future will always be vulnerable to. Facebook has even begun warning, and applying the appropriate functionalities for, users to control what information is available to who.

While these audience tools are useful they don’t remove the issues that Graph Search will bring with it. That anybody can now search through users that like a certain page or live in a certain place, or have been to a certain place, or went to a particular University is something that society has never had in their hands before. It could seriously be labelled the democratisation of..people? Privacy? An example of the more frightening abilities of the new functionality, check out this Tumblr blog.

Ultimately, privacy is something that we’re going to have to deal with for the rest of our lives with the digital world we live in. Even governments are being accused of violating citizens’ privacy.Ultimately, there is little we can do other than make sure that we are vigilant online, because once something is on the Internet it is generally there forever.

Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt back in 2010 suggested that many of today’s youth will have to change their names to distance themselves from the information they published on the Internet.

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