Facebook's new stalker search

The social network's personalized search engine could change the way we look for jobs -- and even how we date

Published January 15, 2013 10:15PM (EST)

    (AP/Jeff Chiu)
(AP/Jeff Chiu)

It's Saturday night in the not too distant future. You walk into a crowded bar. At first glance, you don't recognize anyone, so you pull out your phone and log into your Facebook app. You tap in a query: Show me the single women (or men) who are in this bar, adore Mozart, Macklemore and the TV show "Community" and are part of the network defined as "friends of my Facebook friends." Oh, and it would probably be good if they were STD-free, but you might need a different app for that.

If you're lucky, Facebook spits back a few profile pics at you, and you're suddenly ready to buy someone a drink who is already pre-approved for your personal checklist. You're a happy participant in the future of search, Facebook-style.

The scenario is just one of countless permutations conceivably made possible by Facebook's newest next big thing, Graph Search, unveiled Tuesday morning to the accompaniment of a zillion simultaneous tweets and live blogs. Graph Search, despite its stolid name, looks like a big deal, a way for Facebook to exploit everything it knows about you and your network of friends to deliver customized search results that Google can't touch. Depending on which analyst you care to believe, Graph Search could savage not just Google's stranglehold on search, but also the existing business models for online dating, job search services, Yelp, Craigslist and who knows what else.

For the full story, readers need to look no further than "Facebook’s Bold, Compelling and Scary Engine of Discovery: The Inside Story of Graph Search," an article written by longtime ace technology writer Steven Levy, and conveniently published by Wired moments after the Facebook event ended. But the basics are pretty simple. Facebook knows what you like. People trust their friends for recommendations. In Facebook's new version of search, you will be able to ask Facebook directly for friend-vetted recommendations like "What dentists do my friends like?" "What Indian restaurants do my Indian friends like?" "What TV shows do my friends who like dubstep but aren't Indian like?"

Give me the redheads who like Joss Whedon! All of them!

Better pay attention to your privacy controls and turn off that location data! Graph Search, according to Facebook, will be "privacy-aware" -- that is, it will respect the boundaries that you set as to what is shared and what isn't. And yet, on the other hand, it will only work really well if we are promiscuous in what we "like" and willing to share oodles of information about ourselves. Facebook has created a tool that, in effect, pushes us to do more of what Facebook wants us to do -- because, even though there are no plans right now for ads on Graph Search, ultimately Facebook's profits hinge on being able to target us for advertising based on what we tell Facebook about ourselves. And no matter how privacy aware the software engine is, that seems to carry significant privacy implications. Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of "The Googlization of Everything," tweeted that "Graph Search is a stalker's dream." Will single men and women really feel comfortable with their photographs suddenly accessible via Graph Search based on specific hookup-friendly search query terms?

If Facebook's past is prologue, a vocal minority will complain loudly for a week, the majority will start avidly using the tool, and six months later, Graph Search will feel like an indispensable part of our daily life.

Yeah, seems like kind of a big deal.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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