Facebook Graph Search Attempts To Solve The Social Network's 'Big' Problem

It remains to be seen what relationships or experiences Graph Search will enable, but, at least so far, the information it surfaces seems best suited to helping Facebook users do what they've always done: peer, unseen, into other peoples' lives.
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The new search tool Facebook introduced Monday marks an attempt to fix a problem the social network helped create: Thanks to its emphasis on sharing, currency of friend requests and growing member population, Facebook users have become "friends" with hundreds of people they don't know well and don't know much about.

With Graph Search, which is rolling out to the site's U.S. users first, Facebook is expanding its focus from "friending" to being friendly -- all with an eye toward giving the social network more control over its users' social calendars.

Two Facebook employees who worked on Graph Search pitched the feature as a way for members to "navigate connections" and "make them more useful" -- Facebook-speak for making it easier to find information others have shared, or figuring out which acquaintance has done what. With Graph Search, the social network promises, you can discover new things to do (just search "friends who are French who like restaurants in Paris"), call up photos you've taken with buddies in the past (look up "friends who have uploaded photos with me") and find friends you never knew shared your interests (search "people who like Arrested Development and live in New York City").

Facebook's push underscores a new reality of our social lives: We've accumulated more "friends" than we can possibly be friends with, and belong to overgrown social networks that we have trouble managing.

"Facebook flattens every relationship you have into the same thing: a friend," explained Alice Marwick, a professor in Fordham University's department of communication and media studies. "Facebook Graph Search is trying to help you distinguish patterns in this big amorphous mass of people."

Since its inception in 2004, Facebook has pushed to free relationships from the constraints of time, place and actual, real-world connection. The average Facebook user now has over 300 friends -- 7 percent of whom they've never met in person and nearly double the number psychologist Robin Dunbar claims we can cognitively handle. In a tacit acknowledgement of how unwieldy online social circles had become, Facebook in 2012 encouraged its users to banish friends they didn't care to hear from (but couldn't for etiquette reasons de-friend) to a third category of people who would remain absent from the News Feed: "Acquaintances."

Now, by making data about our friends more easily accessible, Facebook aims to help us organize the vast number of people we've connected with online, transforming them from a generic group of "friends" to more discrete categories of people we could, say, take to the ballet, pester for travel tips or ask out on a date because Facebook says they're single.

Like so many of Facebook's changes, however, there's at least as much in it for the social network as for its users. Graph Search highlights Facebook's ambitions to move from address book to social planner -- from a repository of contact information and memories to a place that gives us ideas for things to do and people to do them with.

That's particularly crucial for Facebook's efforts to woo ad dollars, as the social network must demonstrate to advertisers that it helps people decide how to spend their money. By serving as a friend-powered tour guide, Facebook aims to position itself as a place to discover not only who's doing what, but what we'll do next with whom or with which company's product.

It remains to be seen what relationships or experiences Graph Search will enable, but, at least so far, the information it surfaces seems best suited to helping Facebook users do what they've always done: peer, unseen, into other peoples' lives. After all, knowing what someone likes to do isn't the same as being able to do it with them.

In a video demonstrating its new search tool, Facebook shows off Graph Search's capabilities with queries like, "my friends who like trail running," "my friends who like road trips" and "my friends who like dancing," then follows each with footage of happy hipsters -- who presumably connected via Graph Search -- dancing on ski slopes or snapping pics from the back of a car. Facebook is where you find fun, the video suggests.

Yet it's hard to imagine Facebook users wouldn't already know such basic details about the people they'd ask to join them for any of those activities. Since when have we invited people to dinner parties because they liked "dinner parties" on Facebook? Or picked road trip companions simply because they joined the "road trip" Facebook group? The utility of Graph Search may bump into social norms that dictate whether it's creepy or weird to invite loose acquaintances to a concert.

"I'm not convinced that [Graph Search] has effects on face-to-face relationships," said Marwick. "These relationships don't exist in a vacuum, and there might be reasons you don't ask someone to do something with you that have nothing to do with whether or not you share an interest. ... Facebook doesn't allow us to skip over that."

Maybe we'll keep our dinner party guests and road trip companions limited to "my friends who don't rely on Facebook to remember what I like."

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