Facebook Graph Search: @PaulBernalUK explains what this is all about…

The first thing to ask whenever Facebook (or indeed any other business) releases a new product or service is what’s in it for them. In the case of Facebook’s new ‘Graph Search’, as in most things Facebook, the answer’s pretty direct: it’s about the data. Graph Search, though it may seem to be just a cool new way of finding stuff, could also turn out to be a very clever way of Facebook gobbling up even more data than before – as well as trying to squeeze even more value from the data that’s already out there.

It comes at a time when Facebook might be facing a new situation – they may be reaching saturation point in terms of user numbers, at least in their prime markets. Figures seem to be suggesting that they are losing users – apparently down 600,000 in the UK and 1.4 million in the US – and though those figures need to be taken with a decent pinch of salt, they do at least suggest that the era of unrelenting user number growth for Facebook may be over. What that means for Facebook, particularly after their less than stellar IPO, is that the pressure’s on to make more money from existing users. They need money, and for that money they need data! They’re like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors, continually shouting out ‘Feed me!’. They need to be fed, so they can grow, and the more they grow, the more they need to be fed.

Firstly, its important to understand what Graph Search does. As the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones puts it, Graph Search is a “new way of mining the information your friends, and their friends”. Essentially, as it’s been described, it takes the data about you, and about your ‘friends’, and uses it as a source from which to search – giving you back stuff that your ‘trusted’ friends either use, or ‘like’, or something along those lines. Where it can get stuff off Facebook, it gives you that – and if it can’t find relevant stuff, it goes to Bing, and does a web search instead. You can search for whatever you want – the examples given by Zuckerberg were things like “people who like fencing and live in Palo Alto” or “films my friends like” or “restaurants recommended in New York” – but the possibilities are endless, and Cellan-Jones highlighted the possibilities of using it as a sort of ‘dating search’: companies like eHarmony etc will be quaking in their boots.

Still, how is this about data? Well, if Graph Search takes off, it will have a number of implications:

  1. When people search, they reveal stuff about themselves – they effectively add more stuff to their profile. That’s one of the reasons Google do so well – having information about what people are interested in is key. Each search term entered on Graph Search is more data for Facebook – and a potentially more accurate profile of the user.
  2. Graph search will work better for people if their own profile is better – that is, the more data you put up about yourself, the more ‘personalised’ your Graph search will be. Facebook will be sure to let people know that, to persuade them to enter more and more data.
  3. There have already been hints made that you might want to put more data up to ‘help’ your friends when they use Graph search. Of course the people it really helps are Facebook – they want more of your data – but the altruism, the sociability, will doubtless be stressed. Be a good friend – put more data up! Tell people what you like!
  4. Businesses will start to realise that if people are using Graph search, they need to be on Facebook – and they need to get people to ‘like’ them even more than before. The ‘like’ button is already a big deal – this will make it more so. Businesses will be pushing you to ‘like’ them even more than before…. which means yet more data to Facebook, and more ‘permission’ given for that data to be used. Do you know what you’re consenting to when you press ‘like’?
  5. The more businesses are on Facebook, the more individuals have to be Facebook to manage those business pages – it’s another ‘lock in’. I know many people who say ‘I’d love to leave Facebook, but I have to be there to manage my business’s page’. That will only increase…

For Facebook, it’s a ‘win-win’ scenario. They get more data – and potentially better data, as people might focus on refining their profiles in order to get ‘better’ Graph Search results. They get more uses – and hence more money – from their existing data. They get others – individuals and businesses – to do both their selling and their data gathering for them. They lock people into their business model even more.

There’s another interesting issue for me. Google are under pressure for not making their searches ‘neutral’ enough – for possibly prioritising businesses that they make money from, or downgrading rivals or so forth. They deny that this is happening, and claim their search algorithm is ‘neutral’. Facebook Graph Search by design prioritises businesses and others on Facebook – it doesn’t even pretend to be neutral. Should it? And if it can exist in this form, why shouldn’t Google be allowed to be less than neutral? Of course there are vast differences between the services, but I have a feeling this may open up an already squirming can of worms even further.

I should note that this is only a first set of thoughts on Facebook Graph Search – and I haven’t even talked about privacy yet! What actually happens to it may be very different from Mark Zuckerberg’s dream. It could be a distinctly damp squib – much of the reporting has suggested people are underwhelmed by it. I hope so, because the one thing, more than any other, that I don’t want to see on the internet is one service dominating. The net needs to be open, it needs to be varied, it needs to be flexible and it needs to be dynamic. If we all do the same thing, or all use the same service all the time, that is far less likely to continue.

Paul Bernal is a Lecturer in IT, IP and Media Law at UEA. This article was originally posted on Paul’s blog. You can follow Paul on twitter@PaulBernalUK


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