Facebook Graph Search challenges contextual privacy further


A short overview

Challenging contextual privacy expectations

Facebook announced a semantic and social search feature called Graph Search last week.

Graph Search will appear as a bigger search bar at the top of each page. When you search for something, that search not only determines the set of results you get, but also serves as a title for the page. You can edit the title – and in doing so create your own custom view of the content you and your friends have shared on Facebook.

Graph Search is a significant update to Facebook’s search functionality on its website. It is, effectively, a semantic and social search capability that enables its users to search Facebook users’ Social Graphs for anything ranging from which dentists your friends prefer to which of your friends are fans of a particular band and are in your area. Graph Search references users’ profile data far more extensively and contextually than is currently possible.

Facebook was very clear that Graph Search is privacy aware and the information which is made available through this new functionality is limited to the information which is currently available based on privacy settings and preferences. That said, Graph Search is already creating some consternation because it is exposing profile information far more readily than was previously possible and touches on another aspect of privacy which most users are not consciously aware of, at least they were not consciously aware of this before Graph Search.

From a privacy perspective, Graph Search presents an interesting conundrum for Facebook users. On the one hand, users have selected their privacy settings and have exposed their profile data to selected groups of friends using some fairly granular privacy controls. On the other hand, users have become accustomed to accessible profile data becoming hidden by obscurity, in some cases, and by the sheer volume of posts, updates and other content which they have published to their Social Graph in the form of Timeline over the years. This is really an extension of a similar concern which arose when Timeline was unveiled. Graph Search makes previously hidden profile data not only more readily available but contextually available to.


This increased contextual availability not only potentially erodes what additional privacy users enjoyed due to obscurity but it ties this data together based on contextual references and criteria. While this becomes enormously useful for users who are looking for, for example, friends who can recommend a plumber in their area, it also exposes other linkages which users may prefer not be established or identified. One example of this might be a user who has certain preferences not readily made public (say, for example, a particular music genre) which may be combined with some other search criteria, such as a neighbourhood, to give that user’s friends perspective on the user which they didn’t previously have.

The solution for users who find this new semantic and social search capability disturbing is either to fine tune in their privacy controls and settings or to remove certain profile data which they would prefer not to be made available to users through Graph Search. Ultimately, the utility of Graph Search may be far more valuable than the inconvenience or even embarrassment which some users may experience when Facebook friends in one context of their lives become aware of other aspects of their lives.

We are almost certainly going to see more intelligent semantic and social capabilities being introduced into our various social services in the years to follow. As with previous trends, the question is whether users’ expectations will adapt to match these trends (or, on the other hand, will continue to fuel them)?

Published by Paul Jacobson

Enthusiast, writer, Happiness Engineer at @automattic. I take photos too. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad.

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