Plotting the graph

When Facebook unveiled its search tool last week, the announcement was met with the usual hype the social network inspires every time it unveils a new feature. Once it is rolled out to users, graph search will replace Facebook's presently rudimentary search bar with a search engine that enables users to sift through their network with specific queries about their friends. Graph search's greatest selling point is that it isn't based on keywords, like Google, but on linked phrases that are unique to each user, such as "friends who like trekking in the Himalayas" or "colleagues who watch anime movies".

Every time Facebook recreates itself, the sceptics even the ones who constantly check their news feeds but won't admit it lament that individual privacy is being threatened. The addicts eagerly await the promise of more fulfilling stalking. The advertisers, arguably those with the most to lose if the product is unsuccessful, gleefully contemplate the new opportunity to flood users with targeted ads. Graph search is likely to change little about the way Facebook is used essentially for fun. The new tool does, however, remind us of the pitfalls of relying on the online versions of our friends to make offline decisions.

From its inception in 2004 as an exclusive network for American college students, Facebook has grown into the world's largest social network. More than half its users visit the site every day and spend an average of 19 minutes on it. Its omnipresence in the lives of its most loyal users is almost frightening, until we remind ourselves that Facebook can only control our social interactions if we let it.

Graph search draws attention to the beauty and danger of Facebook itself: the capacity it gives users to (re)create themselves online in a manner that might not fully bear out in reality. Online selves, or Facebook profiles, tend to be carefully curated and circumscribed, or simply unpopulated versions of offline selves, and graph search will only make this more apparent. Over the past eight years, Facebook has persuaded its users to pump personal information into their profiles and is now sitting on a goldmine of data. Unfortunately, there is plenty of misleading or just plain false data amidst the gold, because users have elected to put it there. The cesspool of inaccuracies will now start to emerge in response to targeted queries, almost defeating the purpose of searching.

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