What’s everyone saying about Breaking Bad? What about just my friends? What do my old photo comments say about me? A trillion posts full of this info start getting unlocked today as Facebook begins rolling out Graph Search for posts to a small subset of US English users. It will allow us to see what the world thinks of anything, but could also dredge up the past, defeating ‘privacy by obscurity’.
When Facebook launched Graph Search in January, it started with indexing people, photos, places, and interests. It let you find people based on certain characteristics, browse specific sets of photos, find local businesses, and discover media and brands your friends enjoy. But there were three big things missing: International access, mobile access, and the ability to search posts.
Since then Facebook has expanded Graph Search from a limited beta to a product available to all US users that browse in English. Since Graph Search is a semantic search engine based on sentences, not keywords, it’s tricky and slow to internationalize.
There’s still no mobile support, which is facepalm-worthy consider Facebook is supposed to be a “mobile first” company, and much of Graph Search’s potential lies in helping people find things and friends while on the go.
Today, though, Facebook starts solving the third problem by making almost anything you post accessible via Graph Search. That includes status updates, comments on anything, photo captions, Notes, and check-ins. No Events yet, though. Only a small group of US-English users are getting post search today, and Facebook tells me it plans to to monitor usage and take feedback before refining post search and rolling it out to all Graph Search users.
THE END OF PRIVACY BY OBSCURITY
Looking to the past, Graph Search for posts will help Facebook and its users realize the ambitions of Timeline. Suddenly everything we’ve written on Facebook isn’t just clunkily navigable from our profiles. It can be searched by anyone with permission to see it. Your bitter posts from your college library, silly comments on friends’ wedding photos, and dispatches from distant vacation check-ins can all be distilled from the rest of your content.
That could make for some fun nostalgia, or some embarrassing fiascos. Before Timeline, your old posts were essentially locked away behind hundreds of clicks of the “more posts” button at the bottom of your profile. This is known as ‘privacy by obscurity’. Technically your old content was still accessible, but it was really tough to find, essentially making the past a secret.
Timeline let you find content on the profiles of friends if you knew what you were looking for and when to look. Graph Search for people let you find a non-friend’s profile and comb through their public posts. But Graph Search for posts essentially eradicates ‘privacy by obscurity’. If you said it, and it’s technically visible to someone, they will be able to easily find it. That includes any time you’ve mentioned you’re “drunk”, “high”, “depressed”, “pissed”, or cursed like a sailor.
I don’t mean to scare you. There’s a lot of fun, learning, and ‘connection’ that will come from Graph Search of old posts. But this is a good time to go to your Activity Log and make sure any sensitive content you have has the right privacy settings. I’d definitely recommend doing this when you get the feature yourself. That’s actually one problem with the slow rollout. Some people’s content will be searchable by others before they can search it themselves.
On the plus side, at least you will eventually be able to look up what you once said. Facebook has never really had this feature. And despite Twitter being known as the public record of the Internet, its search feature was spotty until recently, sometimes failing to return old. [Update: It's improved vastly over the last year or so, though.] Now both social networks have adequate keyword search. That means people need to be more careful about what they post, which could cause a slight chilling effect on sharing.
THE GLOBAL TOWNSQUARE, INDEXED
Looking at the present, Graph Search for posts could do a lot to help Facebook win the war against Twitter to become the web’s premier water cooler. Perhaps more than Facebook adding hashtags, verified profiles, trending topics, and other features from Twitter’s playbook.
Now when there’s a big live television event or world news, you can browse more than your News Feed or hashtags. You can search for “Posts about Syria” to see every public post on Facebook mentioning the word. Want to only see what your friends are saying about the latest teen pop drama? Search “Posts about Miley Cyrus from my friends”.
Not only will that surface more content to browse, increasing Facebook’s time-on-site. Creating a new audience for posts could encourage more people to publish. Facebook’s losing this engagement to Twitter right now, but Graph Search could even the score. Post search could also be a boon to Facebook’s role as a journalism source, since reporters could use Graph Search to find eye-witnesses who were at a news-worthy happening or pundits who’ve discussed it.
Graph Searches for posts could become popular places for Facebook to advertise. Facebook briefly experimented with showing ads on Graph Search results pages, but doesn’t any more. It could earn a ton of money if it did, though. Much of Twitter’s ad pitch is that it can help brands reach users that are passionately reading, tweeting or searching for something related to their business. Facebook could steal some of those real-time ad dollars with units on results pages of Graph Searches for posts.
If Facebook can convince users there’s more going on than what’s immediately visible in their News Feeds, it could get them spending more time on the site meeting each other, discussing the day’s events, and getting the pulse of the planet. That could let Facebook accomplish its goals of connecting the world while finding more ways to pay for all the servers that host our digital lives.