The subtle impact of Facebook Graph Search is that when you share openly, you share for the benefit of mankind. And when you don’t, or share to just a few people, you’re robbing the world of your knowledge, recommendations, and content. The question for each of us now is whether we prioritize our contribution or our privacy.
Facebook’s mission has long been “making the world more open and connected,” but until now, Facebook’s service has been better at connecting us to our friends.
The news feed and Timeline deliver what we post to people who already know us. Sharing was about self-expression — offering up a digital representation of who we are. What we shared could end up helping people, but we got a narcissistic boost from all those Likes and gained social capital in the process. Sharing wasn’t entirely altruistic.
Graph Search creates a potential audience for our content who we’ll never meet. Your Like of a gentle dentist or a tranquil park, your photo of a historic landmark or must-see event could influence decisions of people for the better. But you won’t know that. Your aid falls outside your network to those who stumbled across your donation via Graph Search.
This redefines our relationship with the Facebook share box. There’s suddenly a reason to share even if you can’t immediately foresee how or to who it will be valuable.
Those warm, fuzzy Likes and the chance to make people think you’re an expert might make you share things you thought your friends care about. However, the fear of getting zero Likes and annoying your friends may have discouraged you from sharing things that could assist someone eventually. A broadcast to the news feed was simply the wrong medium for your local dentist recommendation.
But if there were a way to take a quiet action that would be indexed by Graph Search, you might be much more willing to donate your advice and experience to Facebook. The problem is this doesn’t really exist. The closest approximation would be to publicly share something and then hide it from your Timeline. But that won’t actually hide Page Likes from the news feed, and people may not care if their addition to the graph can be pulled by friends who visit their Timeline. They just don’t want it pestering their friends from the homepage. Facebook needs to build this quiet contribution.
Why? Stow the cynicism for a moment and remember there are souls out there who really love to help others. While there are badges and elite status, altruism is the foundation of thriving communities like Yelp and Wikipedia. Not coincidentally, Facebook Graph Search challenges Yelp because it too can attract and offer up recommendations. If Facebook makes it easy to lend a hand, people will. Its graph could flourish, the world might find it truly valuable, and Facebook could turn it into a business that supports further innovation.
There is also a potential dark side to Graph Search — a chilling effect on sharing. When Facebook launched the news feed in late 2006, 750,000 of its 12 million users joined a group protesting the feature. They claimed that while all the stories in the news feed were only shown to people their authors allowed, it violated their “privacy through obscurity.” The effort that was required to find something on Facebook before news feed was protection enough. Despite concerns, people eventually grew to cherish the information stream.
Facebook went through another round of grumbling when it launched Timeline. Suddenly old posts could be dug up much more easily. But again, there was a degree of protection from employers, family, and romantic interests thanks to the friction of browsing through years of content in search of something offensive.
When Graph Search rolls out publicly, we may see the same sense of violation, but magnified by the ease of search. Before you might have shared something widely or publicly that might damage your reputation — a drunk photo, a controversial article, a joke in poor taste — but you’d assume its audience would typically be people who got your updates in the news feed.
Graph Search’s efficiency penetrates the armor of friction to discovery. A recruiter doesn’t have to comb years of Timeline. They can search for photos you’ve taken in Cancun. They can search for “people named Josh Constine interested in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.” And soon Facebook plans to index posts, meaning all your status updates and links can be dredged up.
Some people have nothing to hide. But for others whose identities aren’t necessarily aligned with their bosses or their parents, Graph Search could be a nightmare. Others still just don’t care about helping out. They’re not going to go to the trouble of Liking their favorite dentist in case it might assist a friend or a stranger. And finally there are people who just feel uncomfortable sharing so openly.
There’s nothing wrong with being any of these. If you don’t want to contribute, that’s fine, and it’s your choice. But now that Graph Search exists, it’s a choice you have to make.