Centre for Internet & Society

The jury's out on Facebook's newly introduced Graph Search. While some argue that it's a stalker's dream come true, others say it's a great tool for social research. Shikha Kumar jumps right into the debate.

Shikha Kumar's article was published in DNA on July 21, 2013. Sunil Abraham is quoted.

Do this little exercise. Log on to Facebook and type ‘friends of friends who are single’ or ‘friends of friends who like dancing’ in the search bar on the top left hand of the screen. A long list of names with photographs of people you may have never seen in your life will pop up in front of you. Better still (or worse, depending on perspective), you can refine this search further with the drop down menu on the right hand side of the screen; you can filter the results on the basis of gender, employer, current city, hometown and so on.

Now, depending on whether you are paranoid about your privacy, or don’t give a damn (since the government is snooping on us anyway), you will either view this feature as a stalker’s dream come true or just another irritant to rant about for a day and then forget.

Whatever your reaction, Graph Search, an upgrade on Facebook’s rudimentary ‘search’, is here to stay and it holds the potential to forever change the ‘search’ behaviour of its members.

Put simply, Graph Search is the Google search of Facebook. It indexes every little detail you have shared on Facebook — every drunken ‘like’, every status update, every unflattering photograph you are tagged in, every joke you’ve shared — so that a simple search can throw up pretty specific answers. A beta version was unveiled to a select audience in January but it went live for all English (US) users early last week.

A look at a Tumblr blog called ‘Actual Facebook Graph Searches’ gives an indication of how specific the results can get. Ranging from humorous to downright outrageous, some queries posted included ‘Single women who live nearby and who are interested in men and like Getting Drunk’ and ‘Married people who like Prostitutes.’

This is exactly why people like Adarsh Matham, a 29-year-old tech writer, cite as reason for never having been on Facebook. While he does admit the new feature can be very useful in finding jobs, dates, new friends and local businesses, he says the downsides trump the benefits. “Imagine if some pervert searches for ‘girls who like Fifty Shades of Grey in Mumbai’… It will make it easier for him to stalk them,” says Matham.

If you use your imagination, the list won’t end. Imagine what perverts at your workplace and in your apartment complex who are not ‘friends’ with you on Facebook can do with information they glean about you thanks to Graph Search.

Matham is particularly concerned with Graph Search’s misuse in India because of our social attitudes and tendency to slot people into types and judge them immediately. “One of the first things that people do when they go for a job or on a date is a Google search. Soon they will do a Graph Search too. This is a complete intrusion of one’s privacy.”

Sunil Abraham, director at the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society, thinks the privacy implications are worrying because the average Indian user is not a ‘power’ user who fully exploits the site’s advanced features and is thus unclear about what personal information is public or private. “People need to be very cautious as they’re leaving behind a digital trail that is always searchable unlike on other platforms like Twitter. It’s like tattooing yourself, it’s permanent but you may not be comfortable with it in the future,” he says.

A brilliant format
Privacy concerns aside, many have warmed up to the benefits of Graph Search. Raghu Mohan, a Bangalore-based writer with YourStory.in, has used it for over six months and has only good things to say about it. “I think it’s a remarkable engineering feat. Any platform with a user data of over a billion people needs to come up with such a search facility,” says Mohan, adding that the tool has been very useful in finding work-related data.

Chetan Asher, founder and CEO of Tonic Media, a social media agency, agrees with him, saying the new feature is “very exciting” purely because of its ability to index information that was always there, but was buried somewhere. “The simple phrase-like format is brilliant… It completely changes the way you network and mine for information.”

Mohan adds that start-ups can benefit with what the feature offers. “Though not a complete marketing tool, Graph Search patterns can also provide more targeted behaviour for advertisers.” Mohan also looks at the feature as a social influencer. “If I’m looking to buy a new car, I’d rather use Graph Search to find out opinions based on my friends’ recommendations than a web search involving strangers,” he says.

From his experience, Asher says that the site doesn’t compromise the privacy settings that the user has set. But Ankit Tuteja, a 23-year-old technology expert in Delhi, would beg to differ with this. Tuteja has experimented with random searches to gauge how the feature worked with different privacy settings and found that Facebook tends to override certain security settings. “The security of your photographs are a major cause for concern,” he cautions.

For those concerned about privacy, it’s best to think carefully before ‘liking’ or uploading anything as it will remain in the digital realm forever, says Abraham. Mohan shrugs off privacy concerns as overrated. “You lost your personal life when you went online. Stalking can happen otherwise too.”

This innovation is clearly important to the company. While Asher says it is part of Facebook’s long-term plans to move beyond networking, Abraham says that faced with slow overall growth globally (except in markets like India), such innovations are just an attempt to keep its user base intact.

The more things change...
Whatever the reaction, Facebook is probably banking on the fact that after initial protests and social media debates, people will come around to accepting this intrusion into their private lives.

The American news satire website The Onion pretty much nailed this when, in a satirical piece, it ‘quoted’ Zuckerberg as saying: “Facebook will introduce a bunch of new features that everyone will hate, that will make your experience worse, you will complain about it, and then you will realize you are utterly powerless to do anything about these new features, at which point you will move on and continue to use our product every single day. Any users who strongly disagree with their policy should feel free to deactivate their accounts and reactivate them two days later.”

Admit it, you’ll probably be one of them.