Now you can use Facebook Graph Search (and it can be used on you)

Jesse Brown on privacy concerns with the new tool


Earlier this year I wrote about Facebook’s Graph Search, a new feature that lets users perform highly specific searches based on highly personal information. For example, you can sift through all of Facebook to find, say, “Men who work at City Hall Toronto who like football and crack cocaine.” In the next few weeks, Graph Search will move from beta to prime-time, and every Facebook user whose language is set to U.S. English (the default in English-speaking Canada) will get access to it.

Don’t get too excited. As I wrote in January, Graph Search is a highly limited tool. The problem, of course, is that it relies on people accurately indexing themselves. Civil servants who actually like crack are unlikely to say so on Facebook (the above search yields zero results). Meanwhile, the 774 people who clicked that they “like” crack on Facebook probably did so ironically. In other words, in the case of many graph searches, you almost certainly won’t find the people you’re looking for, but you’ll likely find people who you aren’t looking for.

That makes Graph Search somewhat useless — but it doesn’t make it harmless.

A clever online satirist named Tom Scott decided to twist Graph Search towards its most inappropriate extremes. His Tumblr, Actual Facebook Graph Searches, includes these gems:

  • Married people who like prostitutes (more than 100 people)
  • Islamic men interested in men who live in Tehran, Iran (more than 1,000 people)
  • Single women who live nearby and who are interested in men and like Getting Drunk! (more than 100 people)

Once again, these results, I suspect, are not very accurate. Any married man who publicly expresses a fondness for prostitutes is probably making a dumb joke. A Muslim Iranian male who expresses his interest in other men might have a different understanding of “interested in” than we do. There is one honest set of Graph Search results above; women who describe themselves as single, straight and fond of inebriation are likely self-reporting truthfully on all counts. But this search produces results that are more misleading than false. I suspect that “nearby” guys will get the idea that these women are looking for action from them, and I suspect that they are wrong. Similarly, if Islamic officials in Tehran go on a Graph Search hunt for local homosexuals, they may not find the “right” targets. But they will find targets.

The ongoing history of Facebook continues to be one of warped contexts. When Timeline was rolled out, messages we posted on each other’s walls in years past were given new and more prominent placement. Thousand of us swore that our private messages were being publicly posted, but this turned out to be untrue. But what we posted to a friend’s page in 2009, when Facebook was a hangout for our immediate peer group, was very different than what we want on our own profile today, when years worth of personal and professional relationships share the space.

Similarly, our old pokes, ninja-kicks, Words with Friends scores and ironic Justin Bieber appreciations may follow and haunt us as Facebook finds new ways to mix and mash our data.

Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown