Facebook releases Graph Search, redefines privacy again

By Brandon Bailey

San Jose Mercury News            
McClatchy Tribune


Looking for a reason to spend more time on Facebook? CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his crew of social-software gurus are convinced their new Graph Search function is just what you need.

Zuckerberg has touted Graph Search as a “third pillar” of the popular social networking service as important to the Facebook experience as Timeline or News Feed. For many Facebook users, however, the new feature will take some getting used to.

That’s because Graph Search works differently from Google or Bing, the search engines that most people use to tap the wisdom of the Web. It isn’t built to search the entire Internet. But it lets you explore more aspects of your own social circles, as well as some unexpected corners of the online world, as I discovered while trying it over several days.

It does that by emphasizing results that are linked to your friends, while promising to respect users’ privacy preferences. Rather than search the whole Web, Graph Search sorts through photos that have been uploaded to Facebook, people who have profiles on Facebook and artists or businesses that have created pages on Facebook.

A few days after I registered _ Facebook is introducing the service gradually to users who sign up for a beta test. I found a new blue bar at the top of my Facebook Timeline, inviting me to “Search for people, places and things.” Once I clicked on the bar, it suggested categories such as “Photos of my friends,” “Restaurants nearby,” “Music my friends like” and “Photos I have liked.”

That seems pretty straight-forward, but you can build on those suggestions by typing other phrases. Facebook designed the software to process phrases, not just keywords, so you can narrow or widen a search by typing more criteria, such as “Photos taken by friends in San Jose, Calif., before 1999.”

Sometimes the phrasing doesn’t work, or Facebook will suggest an alternative. As it turned out, none of my friends have uploaded old pictures of San Jose. But a search for “Photos of my friends before 1999” produced a few hilarious hairstyles and some nostalgia-laden class pictures from grade-school days.

I also tried “Photos taken in China by my friends.” Up popped some fascinating images that I’d missed seeing in my Facebook feed. Facebook will suggest ways to refine your search so you can, for example, get a list of single people with whom you have a friend in common, and then narrow that list to San Francisco residents who like Scrabble or salsa dancing. You can specify gender, religion, age range and other characteristics.

This brings up the “creepy stalker” issue. You can search for people who meet a set of criteria they don’t have to be friends of friends and get of list of complete strangers, with their profile photos and any “likes” or interests they have shared in public.

You can also search for “People who like” any number of topics.

Facebook says it won’t show information to complete strangers unless you’ve already marked it “public” for sharing. But some people might be surprised to know their “likes” are so easily discovered.

That makes it all the more important for Facebook users to check their settings and review their past activity on the network. In the past, Facebook has been criticized for privacy controls that are confusingly complicated, but the company has streamlined its settings and made it easier to restrict certain information.

You can find shortcuts to privacy tools by clicking the padlock icon in the upper right corner of your Facebook page.

Once you’re in the Activity Log, you can also change the privacy settings on old posts.