Facebook’s announcement Tuesday that it will offer a way to search its “Graph” of information — a galaxy of data points gathered from, well, you and me — has, I believe, significance beyond the surface. Though the announcement didn’t send the firm’s stock soaring, I do think the firm has money on its mind.
Some background: The “Facebook Graph Search” service — which co-founder Mark Zuckerberg said is the “third pillar” of the global online community — is in its early stages. Only “hundreds of thousands” can experience it today, with a controlled test period and eventual launch to follow, the company said. So, for now, most of us just have to take Facebook and its executives at their word for what Graph Search can do, and that it will work.
The idea is simple. Want to find friends who like the Washington Nationals? Ask the question via Facebook and you’ll find them, with the people “closest” to you in terms of online relationships at the top of the list. Then, you can invite any or all for a game-day party or to join a rotisserie league or whatever.
Now, it’s true you could achieve the same sort of thing by actually, well, talking to people you know in real life, but digitally it’s more fun, or so Facebook thinks. And we can search for more kinds of things, such as “pictures of Paris” taken by my friends, or “Mexican restaurants in Arlington my friends ‘like.’”
Facebook can do all this, the firm said, because we gave them the data, the photos, the “likes” and so forth. When you “check in” at a popular spot, Facebook knows, and when you “like” it, that’s recorded, too. Users may not think of this; we just imagine ourselves sharing the details of our lives with friends. We do share, but, what happens on Facebook pretty much stays on Facebook.
That said, the company took great pains to emphasize that you can mark items as private, keeping them away from searching eyes. “Everyone on Facebook who isn’t blocked by you can search for you, but what they can see in search results about you depends on what’s shared with them,” the company said on a privacy-information page related to Graph Search. “Search results respect your privacy settings, whether it’s info you’ve shared or posts with tags of you that others have shared.”
So, if you keep your Facebook circle very tight, with strict limitations on who can see or contact you, then you have little to worry about. Most of us, however, are rather public in what we share, and therein lies the money angle.
Why? Again, it’s the amount of data Facebook has already: “[T]here are already more than a billion people, more than 240 billion photos and more than a trillion connections,” product management director Tom Stocky and engineering director Lars Rasmussen said in a post on the firm’s “Newsroom” page.
There’s gold in them thar data, to borrow a phrase. Knowing what you like, what you are looking for and how often you look for it can be a real moneymaker for marketers trying to target their products as accurately as possible. The scattershot approach of even “niche” broadcast advertising (e.g., not everyone who watches the HGTV network, for example, needs a folding cane to help them walk) will be even less attractive now that there’s all that information about you on Facebook.
The trick here will be for marketers to make their Facebook pages as friendly as possible. More “likes” means more visibility and entree into more networks. Looking for a dry cleaner in Laurel, Md.? The one you’ll find, using Graph Search, will be one your friends like, or that their friends like.
In a way, this makes commodities of us all. We’re not just users, we’re being, well, used to make money. The Occupy Wall Street crowd may find that distasteful, but it’s called capitalism, and it’s the implicit bargain we strike when signing up for a social network and its services.
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.