illustration_of_facebook_iconThe possibility of a Facebook search engine has been giving Google the sweats for quite some time now. The search giant may be the most powerful Internet company in the world, but Zuck and Co. have something that it needs more than anything: mountains of valuable personal user data.

Big G has long feared that Facebook would eventually figure out a way to harness that info to create a superior search product, and it appears that day has finally arrived. When Facebook unveiled Graph Search last week, it was heralded as a revolution for the search industry. Fast forward a week, a few floggings from high-profile news outlets, and a Tumblr parody account, and Facebook’s supposed “game-changer” is shaping up to be more like a bad Internet meme.

A Different Kind of Search Experience

Facebook’s plan was to build a new kind of search for the web: a multidimensional tool that would hunt down people, places, and things for users based upon complex query strings. Bloomberg Businessweek reported Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s explanation of Graph Search during the new feature’s unveiling in a press event last week:

“In general, Web search is designed to take any open-ended query and return to you links that may have answers to the question that you might be trying to ask. Now, Graph Search is very different. Graph Search is designed to take a precise query and return to you the answer, not links to other places where you might get the answer.”

Zuck also noted that Facebook teamed up with Bing to create Graph Search, and the two tech titans designed it to answer queries about people, places, and things. Users can search using a variety of filters, such as “liked by” or “place type.” Here’s a couple of example searches that Facebook offers up for users on its official promo:

* “Restaurants in London my friends have been to”
* “People who like cycling and are from my hometown”

Sounds pretty cool, right? Yea, it did – but then came the Tumblr account.

Graph Search? There’s a Meme for That

Heads up, Facebook: it’s kind of hard to invent a search engine capable of compiling and categorizing billions of pieces of data overnight – yes, even when you’ve got Bing in the driver’s seat. Just ask Google – it’s been around since the ’90s and it’s still ironing out the kinks.

Yesterday, reality slapped Facebook in a very public (and quite humiliating) way. ‘Actual Facebook Graph Searches‘ – a Tumblr parody account started by a guy named Tom Scott – surfaced and immediately went viral. Every news outlet from CNET to Forbes covered the story, and Facebook now has some serious publicity problems to mitigate.

In a write-up about the fiasco published yesterday, Forbes highlighted the worst of the worst from the blog thus far. According to the article, some real Graph searches that actually yielded results (yikes!) included these gems:

* “Current employers of people who like Racism”

* “Spouses of married people who like [cheat-on-your-partner
dating site] Ashley Madison”

* “Family members of people who live in China and like [the
very very banned] Falun Gong”

* “Islamic men interested in men who live in Tehran, Iran”

* “People who like Focus on the Family [anti gay marriage]
and Neil Patrick Harris [very gay and due to be married
with kids]”

* “Single women who live nearby and who are interested in men
and like Getting Drunk”

* “Mothers of Catholics from Italy who like Durex”

Wow. Just imagine what kind of trouble people could get into if their name were to pop up in the results for queries like those. Now imagine if the searchers happened to be spouses, family members, or even worse – employers.

Double yikes.

So Google’s been sweating it out for nothing – in a mere week’s time, Facebook’s Graph Search has morphed from groundbreaking web innovation into a drinking game that college students will play on Friday nights.

Good grief.

Internet: please put us out of our misery and queue the Graph Search memes.

Takeaway for Users: Check Those Privacy Settings

If reading this has caused you to become fearful that your own Facebook page will show up in a list of questionable Graph Search results: good. I’ve accomplished my mission. Regarding privacy on Facebook, you’d be best served not by my words, but those of the Tumblr account’s creator himself:

These People Aren’t Stupid
Many people get a bit more savvy as a result of this; most likely, they won’t. The people showing up here aren’t stupid; they just don’t have the knowledge required to be safe. If I took my car to a garage for tune up and disreputable mechanic could fleece me for unwanted repairs and I never know about it that doesn’t make me stupid it just means my knowledge is in other areas.

Graph search jokes are good way of startling people into checking their privacy settings – but most people will never actually be affected by accidentally making data ‘public’. (Of course for the unlucky ones it won’t be again worth taking.)

Most of the danger online comes not from strangers making half-assed jokes about search; it comes from people who know you. A lot of public data fails what I call the ‘bitter ex test’: can someone who hates you ruin your life with that information?

The takeaway from all this is that you need to visit Facebook’s Graph Search help pages and educate yourself about your privacy options. Adjust your existing setting to reflect the level of privacy you may have thought you had already. And do it ASAP: Facebook will be rolling out Graph Search to every member of the site imminently.

As the Forbes piece notes, the Graph isn’t unintentionally broadcasting its users’ private information. People were already Liking and sharing the very things that will land them in the search results – and your history never goes away. Facebook has simply added a way to classify that data and spit it back out to, well… everyone you know (or even just kind of know).

Remember, the Internet never forgets. The more adept services on the web become at organizing your data, the more you’ll want to protect your personal info and activity online. Bottom line: don’t do anything online that you wouldn’t want your wife or boss (or a jury) to see. If Graph Search tells us anything about the Internet’s future, it’s that someday, they inevitably will.

By Nell Terry (c) 2013