Friday, January 18, 2013

Is Facebook Graph Search promoting insularity?

While I agree the science of search needs to be further developed, I don't think that Facebook Graph Search is a step in the right direction. Basically, Facebook Graph Search uses information that users have shared previously and then uses them as weights in searches. To generalize, we can search in stuff shared by other people who are connected to us. We can do perspective searches, searches that give results based on your perspective or scope or visibility of other people's Facebook data.
This isn't new. This search feature was previously available to advertisers and used to target ads to Facebook users. Look how successful that was. But that is not the point of this new feature. It's point is to add more data to Facebook. Specifically to find out what is the context or importance the specific shared or related Facebook data. With each search we do, we provide Facebook with more information about us. With each graph search we do, we provide Facebook with more information about that data that we have in common with the people connected to us. This is a mother-load of information for advertisers. They  constantly want to know the things that interest us so that they can lead us to them.
This used to have hilarious outcomes. That one-off search you did for your mother on recommendations for skin rash cream? Facebook associates that search with you. Were you peppered with adverts for hemorrhoid cream and mature relationship/dating sites? Facebook can't be blamed totally because that is all they have on you. They need more data to make your future searches more relevant. Maybe with this new data, Facebook will be able to differentiate on-off searched from searches that you regularly do. Perhaps, Facebook will notice that you haven't searched for skin rash cream in six months and stop sending you hemorrhoid cream adverts. If it was too smart, it would then assume the worse and start sending you adverts on will generation and estate planning. If you decide to stop using Facebook out of disgust, maybe Facebook will take this data, assume the worse and start sending your family members ads for caskets and funeral homes. Ouch.
How about it if Facebook uses the data it gathers from Graph Searches to target the ads for people around you? Will you start seeing messages that begin, "Which one of you guys searched for hemorrhoid cream?"
I believe that when we search, we are looking for something new. And that is my issue with graph search. It is very likely people with shared interest, find similar things. Not the same things but more likely not new things, either. Yes, we would like to search for new things people connected to us find because the likelihood of us finding them interesting too is high. But these are just a small set and it grows as much as the people around us are willing to share. It would not be long before we will see repeats or in the case of people with a zillion friends, we will see the uncommon interests of subgroups within that group of 'friends'.
The real threat to me is insularity. Since graph searches limit within the people we are connected to, we would be limited to what their common interests are or what they share with us, being aware of what we like. This would create a loop or even encourage an echo chamber where people of similar minds continue to feed of each other. I'm not going to go into the philosophical debate of how flexible truth is or whether perception trumps facts. But it does raise the question of the importance of social graph in relation to deriving search results. I think graph search does have a place as long as we are aware of it's limitation and that it does not override other considerations. We have gotten to the point where we can reliably find answers for questions on the Internet. Do we really want to muddy that with the social graph? If we really wanted to know what French restaurants our friends like, can't we just ask them. Through a post on Facebook. How would you feel if you get a call out of the blue from Bob in Human Resources, wondering whether you'd like to go on a trail run with him? Especially, if you haven't heard of him in the first place.
Again, this is another case of an introduction of a new feature on Facebook that is good for advertisers and not so good for users.

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