Search option from Facebook is privacy test

Whether Facebook's users will continue to divulge more private details will determine whether so-called social search is the next step in how we navigate the online world

Somini Sengupta & Claire Cain Miller

Facebook's greatest triumph has been to persuade a seventh of the world's population to share their personal lives online. Now the social network is taking on its archrival, Google, with a search tool to mine that personal information, just as people are growing more cautious about sharing on the Internet and even occasionally removing what they have already put up. Whether Facebook's more than one billion users will continue to divulge even more private details will determine whether so-called social search is the next step in how we navigate the online world. It will also determine whether Facebook has found a business model that will make it a lot of money.

"There's a big potential upside for both Facebook and users, but getting people to change their behaviors in relation to what they share will not be easy," said Andrew T Stephen, who teaches marketing at the University of Pittsburgh and studies consumer behavior on online social networks. This week, Facebook unveiled its search tool, which it calls graph search, a reference to the network of friends its users have created. The company's algorithms will filter search results for each person, ranking the friends and brands that it thinks a user would trust the most. At first, it will mine users' interests, photos, check-ins and "likes," but later it will search through other information, including status updates.

"While the usefulness of graph search increases as people share more about their favorite restaurants, music and other interests, the product doesn't hinge on this," a Facebook spokesman, Jonathan Thaw, said. Nevertheless, the company engineers who created the tool — former Google employees — say that the project will not reach its full potential if Facebook data is "sparse," as they call it. But the company is confident people will share more data, be it the movies they watch, the dentists they trust or the meals that make their mouths water. The things people declare on Facebook will be useful, when someone searches for those interests, Tom Stocky, one of the creators of Facebook search, said in an interview this week. Conversely, by liking more things, he said, people will become more useful in the eyes of their friends. "You might be inclined to 'like' what you like so when your friends search, they'll find it," he said.

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