Co.Design

Facebook’s Graph Search Could Make Us Closer . . . Or Creeped Out

Facebook’s Graph Search has the potential to be the best way ever to meet friends and lovers online. It also could be creepy and pigeonholing. Welcome to the uncanny valley of search.

Yesterday, Facebook announced a new feature called Graph Search. It’s like Google search, if Google were focused entirely within your friends’ interests. Rather than search for single women in Chicago—which would inevitably lead to the slop trough of dating sites and probably some pornography on Google—I could search "friends of friends" who are single on Facebook. I could even search "friends of friends who are women and like Miller Light." The specificity is remarkable, meaning its results could be superbly relevant.

It’s a strategic shift for Facebook. The intent is clear—to keep people on Facebook longer, and to open up countless proven, search-related monetization strategies with all those businesses and services you like. Even still, Facebook has traditionally been more of a catalog of friends and family than a reliable means to expand social circles. Beyond the prey on Catfish, who among us is really seeking to meet new people on the service? Graph Search could change this limitation. Rather than attending a Meetup in hopes of finding friends with similar interests, those friends are, potentially, a search away from my social circle. Facebook could become the ultimate tool for social discovery. But there are a few design flaws that need to be ironed out first.

Attenuating the Creep Factor

You know how everyone gets up in arms about Facebook privacy every three months or so? Graph Search will mean that not only will strangers see posts you never thought were public, strangers will see posts from forever ago that you never thought were public. Any temporal protection you had is gone as Facebook stalking gets its first power tool.

In that context, Facebook could benefit from a few designed provisions. For one, an "opt out" clause would be ideal. Just because you’re a single woman on Facebook doesn’t mean you’re looking for a partner on Facebook, just as being a Star Wars fan on Facebook doesn’t mean you attend Wookie parties on weekends. To be able to share a piece of information with "friends of friends" yet opt out on its power searchability seems like a reasonable line to draw, because by nature, becoming a result of someone else’s search topic makes that topic your defining trait. Besides, you shouldn’t have to hide your relationship status from your mom in order to avoid broadcasting it to every socially tangential penis in a 50-mile radius.

Additionally, while Facebook has clearly designed some powerful tools to explore social with strangers, they haven’t really offered anything new to be social with strangers. There’s no automated tag that informs your potential new friend that you found them in a pretty Facebook-normal way. As of now, it’s on users to attenuate the creepiness of a random hello, to say "I was Graph Searching friends of friends in Chicago who like chess because I’m looking for a weekly game." No doubt, Facebook could do something to design around this critical moment, to offer a digital icebreaker and certify we’re only being half-weird.

Limiting Facebook’s Memory

What is Facebook today? It’s what you’re doing now, and it’s all the things you’ve done. Within that pool hides a deep well of preferences—restaurants, music, and movies you like, places you’ve been, jobs you’ve had, and schools you’ve attended.

But when you add up all of these preferences over years, it’s likely that your tastes have changed. I like(d) TV shows on Facebook that aren’t even on the air anymore, that I don’t necessarily like as much as I did five years ago, but aren’t worth my efforts of going through my history and unliking. They simply don’t matter to me now.

Yet by nature, the vast majority of Facebook’s knowledge is who you were, not who you are. This limitation hasn’t been an issue for Facebook because it’s relatively young and its core interactions are built around the present. Now, Graph Search will dig deeper into that were category, meaning we’ll be more and more defined by others via the brief periods of our own bad taste—the Zubaz pants lurking in all our digital closets. (In fact, Graph Search won’t parse your status updates at launch.) In a world that moves faster than any before it, search could bury our identities into stagnation. We may be typecast by things that aren’t even us anymore.

Design Problems Equal To Design Potential

Graph Search is officially in beta, rolling out first to users who actually sign up. That beta badge is a good sign, as it means Facebook doesn’t claim its ship is watertight just yet. The product’s potential is undeniable: Socially speaking, Graph Search is a friend finder, a dating service, and even a way to learn things about friends and family that you never thought to ask. But there’s almost an uncanny valley we’re approaching of knowing too much about a stranger, and whether that information becomes repulsive or liberating will come completely down to a few pieces of design.

Sign up here.

[Image: Cursors via Shutterstock]

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2 Comments

  • $2353470

    Mark, this is one of the most intellectually rigorous analyses and commentaries about a social platform, service, or feature I've seen. Among the usual 'spread the hype without question' tomes about every addition to the social sphere, this really stands out.  Thanks and congratulations.

  • mekskwpm

    Great, well-thought-out analysis of what we saw yesterday. I hope these considerations. I agree that the success of this will depend on a couple of things:

    1. Facebook will have to ask more questions of users and compel answering: I can guarantee that a search for "Dentists that friends in [my city] would produce a very small or null set of results".

    2. Among my greater network at least, most profiles are private. Unless they do something like what they do with Cover Photos (making privacy hard to achieve and off by default), there will simply not be enough data for average users (WAG - 250 friends?) to find anything interesting that isn't about themselves (e.g. "What pictures have I liked")