Facebook opens network

ADAM ROBERTS
Last updated 12:46 22/01/2013

Whether you are a "doctor who likes self-flagellation and Indian food" or a "seismologist from Guatemala who likes high heels", changes to Facebook are about to either transform the way you use the site or drive you away.

So, another year, another new Facebook feature for privacy watchdogs to feel nervous about, hip technology bloggers to fawn over and more jaded technology bloggers to use as a sign that the company is on the way out.

Last year, it was Timeline, the new format for Facebook profiles that laid your history on the site bare for all to see.

Last week, the dominant social network revealed its next major change: Graph Search, a new feature designed to turn Facebook from a place to hang out in, to a service to find information.

When finding information on the internet, your first move is always to open Google.

This generally works well when you are looking for objective facts, such as the number for a particular business or the director of a certain film. Google's results usually place links to the business or the IMDB page of the film near the top.

But for subjective information - think: what is the best place to go for brunch in Wellington? - you really need to go to the specialists.

At present, the best way to access specialists is by asking your friends or followers on a social network like Facebook or by visiting a review and recommendation site like Tripadvisor or Menumania.

However, Facebook is hoping to change that, with a new feature with the unhelpful name of Graph Search.

The feature opens up the vast store of information the company has on its users - all their likes, photographs, preferences, locations, group memberships - for all to search through.

The search engine uses natural language, so you can make searches for "friends who like 50 Shades of Grey" and reconsider your life choices, or "photos of my friends in Nelson" and become inspired to explore the region and get off Facebook.

You can only see content you're normally allowed to see - stuff shared by your friends or made public.

Apparently, this takes some doing, as about 10 per cent of Facebook's processing power is used to make privacy checks.

The new tool will allow you to go beyond your friend circle, opening up Facebook's entire network - more than 1 billion people - for your perusal.

Forget about asking your friends for film recommendations: try searching for "films film directors have liked recently". You'd probably end up with a lot of boring early French dramas, but at least they would be endorsed by specialists.

One of the examples I've seen used was finding "Indian restaurants liked by people from India", a search that struck me as slightly problematic and vaguely racist.

The tool is also going to be useful for journalists looking for an easy story.

Just pick a societal group, pick a weird interest, and then tap search for a pre-made narrative.

Think: "authors liked by people who like the ACT party" (Ayn Rand) or "films liked by people who like John Key" (Johnny English).

It's hard to tell exactly how this new functionality will change how people use the social network.

Given how quickly we've gone from memorising all our friends' phone numbers to barely even knowing our own, some have said the same would happen with other information.

"Prepare to forget your friends," was the catchcry.

Certainly, you could start to use the search to keep track of where your friends live or what their jobs are. You can't catch every "I got the new job/baby/husband" status update.

It also seems to me that this new move will either make you share much more or much less on Facebook.

The new search will be useful only if the results you get from the searches are satisfying, and they will only be satisfying if everyone shares more.

No-one would use Google if the results it gave you did not answer the questions you posed to it, and this is the same.

Not everyone uses Facebook as much as Mark Zuckerberg thinks they do, and so the search results will have gaping holes in them.

When is the last time you logged on to Facebook to "like" the film you just watched?

There is also the creepiness factor - like Timeline before it, this feature lays bare information you might have thought had disappeared into the ether.

I would hate to see the images that popped up in a search of "photos of your friends in Dunedin".

But it's crucial to Facebook that those who are signed up put as much of themselves into the network as possible, otherwise it has little value for advertisers.

Moves like this offer users a choice - if they feel creeped out at seeing their digital life slice and diced in such searches, perhaps they will leave.

But then again, if they enjoy seeing fun and useful results come up, it's just one more reason to interact more regularly and extensively with the site.

However the service develops, it's clear that a vast amount of effort is being put in to make the social network into a place we will never want to leave.

Whether it works or not is partly down to us - put me in the category of "people who aren't really sure if they want Facebook to succeed and also like tea".

- Nelson

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