The Big Problem With Facebook's Graph Search: Privacy Constraints

The dilemma: Facebook's new search tool will either have to remain private, resulting in limited, biased content, or make private data accessible to search.

If the future of search is likely to be social, the future of social is likely to involve more search. While one could justify the launch of Google+ by the pure objective of making Google Search stay relevant, Facebook made a huge promise recently with the introduction of Facebook Graph Search: that it could somehow let users derive valuable information from the personal and social data others have shared on the social network. Though sometimes questionable, results from Facebook Graph Search let you discover from friends and friends of friends new books to read, movies to watch, places to visit, or restaurants to go to.

This convergence was long-predicted: ever since the rise of Facebook started to shake Google's dominance on the web (and the online advertising market). Search is great provided you know what to look for but doesn't include the serendipity of social networks. It's relevant where Social is noisy but it fails at providing a discovery experience: finding what you didn't know you were looking for. On the other hand, we all want to be entertained, surprised, and educated but we also hate being spammed or being fed irrelevant content from loose social connections--no one cares about their distant high school friend's vacation pictures. So in an ideal situation, we'd want the best of both worlds: Search's relevancy and Social's serendipitous discovery. Whoever combines them first wins, seem to think Facebook and Google.

Or is it that simple?

Social networking is essentially the construction of Social Graphs. In less than 5 years, Facebook built the personal Social Graph, LinkedIn the professional version, and Twitter came out with yet another one using asymmetrical connections. All these graphs have one thing in common: They're based on people connections. That's what makes them fun (like it or not, we're social animals) but also noisy: Human beings are not robots and nothing prevents anyone from posting pretty much whatever they want. Given the social cost in breaking these relationships (even on Twitter, there is etiquette and unfollowing is not as light a decision as it seems), most users end up with poorly curated streams of content mixing interesting stuff with average content, self-promotion, spam and… ads. Nothing is ever free.

For a few years now, some, including myself, have said this will not be the only model for content discovery, and that we needed one based on the Interest Graph. Everyone has interests. Online, this means a relationship between you, an individual, and whatever content you care about. In short, the Interest Graph is about what's interesting to someone online. If we can make a graph out of everyone's interests, we can start discovering people we didn't know before or that we would never have met but who care about the same topics as we do. This is not just different from the Social Graph (discovering new things through people we already know). This is something that could change the way we learn, that could eradicate our prejudices and make us more tolerant to strangers (someone who shares my passion for skiing cannot be that bad). Some even think this could make mankind operate as the global brain philosopher Teilhard de Chardin conceptualized back in the '40s.

This looks a lot like Facebook's Graph Search promise. Except for one major problem: privacy.

If you want to find the most interesting experts on a topic, would you limit your search to friends? To friends of friends? If you wanted to learn about art history or read about the latest plans of NASA for space exploration, would you look at what your friends shared on Facebook? Or would you check Wikipedia and what passionate bloggers, teachers, or experts published? To get the best content from the most expert people, you need to go beyond your Social Graph and connect with people that are neither friends nor friends of friends. Don't get me wrong: Social recommendations matter. They make us feel good, connected, they answer our need to comply with peer pressure and they're often easier to get (aren't friends supposed to be more available than Nobel prizes?). But they're simply not the most relevant.

So with Facebook Graph Search, Facebook will face a dilemma. Either Graph Search remains a private, social search that sticks to friends of friends, in other words potentially entertaining but limited, biased content that will not be the most relevant. Or, Facebook makes more private data accessible to GraphSearch to make it more relevant, hurting privacy advocates in the process but perhaps more importantly losing what makes its core value proposition: connecting with friends in a trusted environment.

There are few companies which managed to stretch themselves successfully under conflicting trends like these. And a lot which didn't, losing the market to new comers with dedicated, less constrained solutions--like Yahoo did to Google trying to be both a portal and a search engine.

Facebook Graph Search is a big, bold, ambitious move by Facebook. Unlike others, I don't think it shows a lack of courage or creativity: You don't get a lot of opportunities to fire on a charging elephant like Google. And I also don't think it won't be used: With its massive daily usage, it doesn't need a lot of conversion to make it something big. But as it stimulates consumers curiosity around their interests, it will create a great opportunity for new players with alternative ways to deliver the Interest Graph without facing the same privacy constraints. A whole new web has to be invented: the topic-centric social media.

--Guillaume Decugis is the cofounder and CEO of Scoop.it, an interest-based content curation platform. A pioneer of mobile music, Decugis cofounded Musiwave, which was acquired by Microsoft for $120 million. He serves on the board of French startups GameTube and TEDEMIS.

[Image: Flickr user Gal]

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