Saturday, January 25, 2014

Graph Search: Facebook is Finally Useful

Facebook's Graph Search feature is amazing. I wanted to know which of my new acquaintances and friends from high school go to the university I'll be visiting for a hackathon next week. So, I just started typing my query in a natural way, "my friends who go to Carnegie Melon University", and bam -- I got exactly what I was looking for. No fumbling with drop down menu filters or long advanced search forms. It's like Wolfram Alpha for your intricate network of friends, family and acquaintances.

Of course, not everyone feels the same way about this feature.  Moreover, not everyone feels the same way about Facebook itself.  There's the highly debated issue of users being overly reliant on the online platform, to the point where it's unhealthy.  Critics of Facebook mock it as a tool for narcissists who couldn't care to remember who their friends are.

While I'm cautious of Facebook's potential to be used in a socially unhealthy way, I'm a firm believer that the data amassed by the network can be used to improve social life off the web.  I've made many acquaintances who I haven't yet had the luxury of learning everything about them.  I will probably remember them and the moments we shared together, but easily forget their name and the school they go to or their hometown. Facebook solves this problem.

However, the fact that Facebook wields so much power, that it single-handedly controls personal, and sometimes private information about nearly everyone, coupled with the perceived lack of transparency about what Facebook does with that data gives rise to the suspicion that they may have a nefarious agenda --  they may be exploiting this data by selling it to nosy corporations or giving direct access to snooping intelligence agencies like the NSA.  

By building Graph Search, Facebook has given me a reason to believe that the data it amassed doesn't have to be used for "evil" -- it can be used for good. Its collection, aggregation, and analysis of social data undoubtedly comes at the cost of privacy, but the insights gained are powerful and beneficial.

At the end of the day, Facebook is solving a complex problem: digesting the massive amount of data submitted voluntarily by hundreds of millions of people around the world, and making it useful.  They've done just that with Graph Search.