Monday, January 28, 2013

Facebook’s Categorial Imperative

The link to the full story is here

Facebook’s newest feature adds some much-needed relevance to the huge proportion of its data hoard that no user has seen or, if we’re honest, thought about, in days, weeks, or years. But Graph Search is ultimately nothing more than a handy sorting algorithm, and it’s indicative of the fact that really, Facebook doesn’t understand the first thing about us.

(As a quick excusatory aside, this doesn’t mean I think it’s useless, of course: The tool they’ve created will make it a snap to find that one picture of your friend on that camping trip in July of 2009 (or was it 2010)? And “Friends in Seattle who like Poker” is a great way to set up a card game. These problems, trifling though they may be, are solved. Also, a “sorting algorithm” is not in any way inherently bad, and many useful and powerful things can be described as such, so no slight intended there either.)

The idea struck me when they were demonstrating how to drill down in search: “Friends of friends in California who read Harry Potter, like mountain biking, and speak Spanish and English.” Leaving aside the questionable utility of such a finely-pointed query, it drove home the fact that Facebook’s conception of each of its users is an endless series of nested categories. Zuckerberg’s joke slide showing a galaxy of pull-down filter boxes was more revealing than they let on.

An individual, to Facebook, is the sum of their interactions with the site — can never be more. You are a collection of data, beginning as an empty vessel when you sign up, and gradually growing in complexity and depth. This much is self-evident.

Facebook has a categorial imperative: Its reason for being may be to provide a service, but its means for being is to systematize individuality.

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