Facebook just enabled its new Graph Search for my profile and I wanted to share some initial reactions (beyond the 140 character variety). Facebook’s new search function allows users to mine their Facebook accounts for things like: “Friends that like eggs” or “Photos of me and my friends who live near Chuck E. Cheese’s. ” The suggested search function is pretty prominent, which serves the double role of telling you what is searchable and how to phrase your search. More than anything else, Graph Search is a stark reminder of how much information you and your friends have given to Facebook. More importantly however, it marks a significant change in how Facebook users see each other and themselves in relation to their data.. You no longer see information through people; you start to see people as affiliated with certain topics or artifacts. Graph Search is like looking at your augmented life from some floating point above the Earth.
Graph Search makes Facebook feel “bigger” and more intimate at the same time. I say bigger because you are no longer an individual who likes The Talking Heads or has too many photos of food. Instead, Graph Search makes me feel as though my friends and I are single instances of Instagramed food within an enormous database of lonely eaters. You just see more of the social landscape and connections come into high relief. Seeing those connections (some of which I saw for the first time) provide an instant “in group” feel. If you didn’t come up in my search for “friends who like cats” you are, by default, a dog person. You are different and you don’t understand my cat tree.
Not only does your perspective change, but the order with which I think about my friends and our mutual interests change as well. Facebook has outgrown its namesake, and now resembles something closer to a social search engine. (Something Zuckerberg has wanted for a long time.) This shift, from a book of faces to an indexed catalogue of varying living and non-living objects, means Facebook can update me on things as well as people. Whereas before Graph Search you could search for people and groups of people (including bands and companies), now you can search for just about anything and see how it relates to your friends. It’s a total deconstruction of my augmented life. Obscure trends are suddenly completely obvious. For example, when I searched “Music my friends like” the top hit (60 friend likes) was “Ingtzi” my friend’s DJ-ing name. A Facebook PR person would call your attention to the fact that Ingtzi isn’t the most popular musician among my friends, but the most unique result among my particular friend distribution. (I have no doubt “The Beatles” or something equally generic outnumbers Ingtzi.)
In order to do work to lots of different people, you have to slice and dice them into many different kinds of subjects. Graph Search could not exist without all of the standardized “likes” and relationship status fields that turn humans into usable data sets. This process of standardizing and groups is not new: governments have been turning people into pieces of information for a long time. Towards the end of his career, Michele Foucault became intensely interested in what he called governmentality or how people become governable populations and civic-oriented citizens. He wanted to know how individual people become compatible with government bureaucracies and soverign entites. After all, you can’t have a Department of Health if you don’t have a body of knowledge and a set of practices that let you treat individuals like a bunch of medical patients or biological entities that contract and transmit disease. Graph Search works in the same way. Standardized “like” buttons and constant requests to “tag this photo” or “Add your hometown” not only encourage you to enter more data, they also make you compatible with search algorithms.
This process is mutually shaping. Just as Facebook makes you compatible with search, your constant searching starts making you think like the algorithm. You might base playlists for parties on Graph Searches, or plan outings based on search results. Your online searches will have consequences offline. Intriguingly, Graph Search seems to work better when I ask very specific things. When I search for “Photos of Food” the top three photos are 1) a picture of the Waffle House Museum sign, 2) a picture of my cousin with his wife, and 3) a sketchbook drawing of a friend. The next four pictures look like stock photos of pizza. I also got this strange (and outdated) promotional sign:
Perhaps image searches are still best left up to Google. For now, I’ll choose my search engine based on two kinds of questions. Questions that start with “what” are meant for Google and questions that start with “who” are Graph Search questions. (Apparently “who” questions that Facebook can’t answer will go to Bing. Good for Bing.) The commentariat seems to believe that Facebook is looking to compete with Google in search, and such questions are best left to business analysts. For me, it will be interesting to see how using both of these search engines will change personal decision-making. I also can’t wait for the inevitable Google is Making Us Stupid corollary: Graph Search is making us Anti-Social.