On January 15, when Facebook announced the beta release of its “Graph Search” function, a tool for uniquely structuring online searches, Mark Zuckerberg explained how the function differs from a traditional web search. “We are not indexing the web. We are indexing our map of the graph, which is really big and constantly changing. Almost a million new people every day. 240 billion photos. 1 billion people. 1 trillion connections.”
On July 8, Graph Search emerged from beta with the launch of a final version for US users.
Traditional search tools scan the web for results that match a keyword or keywords, Graph Search, as Facebook explained back in January, combines “phrases (for example: ‘my friends in New York who like Jay-Z’) to get that set of people, places, photos or other content that’s been shared on Facebook.”
The operative phrase is my friends, since Graph Search is designed and intended to work with information your friends have shared. This said, however, there is nothing to stop a user from searching far more broadly. In fact, the parameters you choose are limited only by your imagination—or your desires, your proclivities, your motives. Picture a guy sporting black socks and a middle-age spread typing “Pictures of blonde teenage girls who live near me.” Imagine the Facebook-savvy burglar who searches on “Holiday vacation plans of people in My Town.”
Although you can Graph Search for just about anything, a search beyond your friends will return only the data those strangers have shared publicly. As Zuckerberg explained back in January, Graph Search is “privacy aware” and is based entirely on data users (you) have been sharing before it was introduced. Your “public” stuff will still be public, but material you share with “just friends” will still be accessible exclusively to friends. As promised when the beta was released, the launch version has triggered no discernible changes to users’ privacy settings.
So, it’s all good, right? That depends on three things.
First, how much you trust your (say) 865 “friends” to keep their “exclusive” knowledge of your passion for the music of Justin Bieber, your mania for hoarding Pokemon cards, and, oh yes, your three DUIs exclusive.
Second, what personal photos are floating around, such as the one of your 865 uploads of you wearing a lampshade and little else. You may prudently hide it from your Timeline, but doing so will not remove it from the uploader’s Timeline. This means that, if someone—say, your boss—does a Graph Search for photos of you, that one will show up, lampshade et al. (What to do? Well, you could untag the photo, so it won’t materialize in regular search results with your name—though it will almost certainly show up under other search criteria—or you could ask the uploader to take it down via the button Facebook provides.)
Third, what you yourself have publicly shared. And that brings us to two inconvenient truths:
- The overwhelming majority of wounds to privacy online—on Facebook or on any other website—are self-inflicted. As tech commentator Tom Scott advises, “If it’d be awkward if it was put on a screen in Times Square, don’t put it on Facebook.”
- Despite Facebook’s privacy assurances, Graph Search does make just about everything more readily, widely, and thoroughly accessible. Think of Facebook as a massive and massively comprehensive index of human preferences attached to specific humans. Graph Search allows you, allows anyone, to search by name, by preference, by both.
So here’s what you can do. Celebrate the launch of Graph Search by doing a personal privacy audit. Take a look at what you share publicly versus what you share only with friends versus with nobody at all. Do it now.
Become proactive about your privacy. Review your shares, winnow your posts, edit your photos—and, yes, re-evaluate your roster of Facebook friends. (Do you really need all 865?) Browse and change your apps settings, and set your Facebook notifications to alert you, for example, when someone tags you in a photo.
Checking your privacy settings. Back in January, CIO.com published “4 Facebook Privacy Settings for the New Year.” It’s a painless short course in fine tuning Facebook. Take an especially close look at item #2, which tells you how to review old posts using your Activity Log.
Finally, honor your personal online brand. This means playing offense with your reputation by posting positive messages and genuinely brand-building facts about yourself. If you don’t proclaim to the online universe who you are, you have plenty of “friends” who will do it for you. Whether you like it or not.