On Tuesday, Facebook announced a new tool, Graph Search, which would allow it a chance at "overturning the Web search business ruled by its chief rival, Google."
Facebook has spent over a year honing graph search, said Mark Zuckerberg, the company's co-founder and chief executive, at an event here at Facebook's headquarters introducing the new product. He said it would enable Facebook users to search their social network for people, places, photos and things that interest them.
That might include, Mr. Zuckerberg offered, Mexican restaurants in Palo Alto that his friends have "liked" on Facebook or checked into. It might be used to find a date, dentist or job, other Facebook executives said.
"Graph search," Mr. Zuckerberg said, "is a completely new way to get information on Facebook."
Where does the fear come from? It is best explained by Steven Levy in his article on Wired, The Inside History of Graph Search, which highlights some of the risks such a search engine would yield with its results:
For some people, though, Graph Search might be a fear-inducing experience. Those who are already wary of Facebook for its privacy practices might chafe at the prospect of having their faces and personal information pop up whenever someone searches for "single women near me." (In 2011 the Federal Trade Commission, charging the company with deceptive practices, reached a settlement that required regular privacy audits for the next 20 years.)
Sam Lessin, a director of product at Facebook, says the company is aware of the concerns and has already set in motion an antidote to unwelcome exposure by offering easier-to-use privacy settings. He emphasizes that Graph Search respects all the restrictions that people impose. "There actually isn't any information being exposed in this that wasn't already available on Facebook in certain ways," he says. In that sense, he notes, Graph Search is similar to Newsfeed -- a product whose introduction didn't expose any new information or violate any restrictions, but made that information more prominent and persistent.
What's more, he says, as much as Facebook's leaders believe in their bones that sharing is a good thing, it's also in their interest that people understand who sees their information -- and that they stay in their comfort zone. "A world where you don't understand who you're sharing with is a world where you don't share very much," Lessin says. "So confusion is everyone's enemy on this stuff."
It will be interesting to see what happens once people do understand how the photos, interests, and personal details they share on Facebook are now part of a new product that may cause that data to be viewed more often and by people who otherwise might not have encountered it. Will this encourage people to share more so they can express themselves more widely and maybe even entice desirable new connections? Or will it lead them to share less and batten down their privacy settings so that new eyes won't include them in a search-graph roundup? "The user base might bifurcate between the people who don't want to be found and those who really do," predicts Elliot Schrage, Facebook's vice president of communications and public policy, who points out that Facebook will give users those choices. "It will be fascinating to see what the percentages are -- and the demographics."
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