The ubiquitous force of Facebook delivered a ‘third pillar’ of its service last week in the shape of innocent sounding Graph Search. Questions have been asked, however, whether this new feature is a cause for concern in terms of privacy and commodification of our personal lives. It is perhaps now prime time for reconsidering the breadth and depth of the information we freely provide to a corporation to whom we are simultaneously a product and customer.
Zuckerberg and co.’s newly unveiled service – tellingly referred to as a ‘product’ – is essentially an in-house, personalised search engine. Any search can include several clauses returning an intensely specific response to a person’s enquiry. So if, for instance, you wanted to confirm a niggling rumour one could simply search “Photos of my friends in Willow, York, taken in 2013”, et voila; something will inevitably tumble out of the online ether. The thought of generating information tailored just for little old you is undeniably an intriguing prospect. It may well reduce time involved in decision-making or give you a more pertinent idea of what is on offer. It also provides a distinct specificity unattainable through Google et al.
The Graph could also deliver a means of interweaving the virtual and physical spheres to an end beneficial for relationships. By visiting a restaurant that your friend has ‘liked’ gives a talking point, a bond. It could be another level by which to immerse yourself in and learn from your friends’ interests. Anderson’s ‘imagined communities’ become tangible kinship as imagination is supplanted with information deemed worthy of sharing by acquaintances or strangers. Alternatively, it allows for really in depth stalking.
There are issues of privacy inherent in Graph Search, as with any aspect of social media. But what is particularly concerning with the ‘third pillar of Facebook’ is the context of more overt attempts by the corporation at dynamising their profitability. Their underwhelming foray into the stock market last year revealed the fallibility of the product. This announcement is the next stage in utilising our personal details to garner investment, nominally through further advertising revenue. Graph Search requires categorising the minutiae of anything we wish to project onto the web in order to maximise potential value. Combine this algorithm-version of our lives with the notoriously difficult to negotiate privacy settings, one sees cause for concern. Facebook will doubtless be willing to push the limits on what constitutes public, profitable information.
Therein lies Zuckerberg’s hamartia. Despite his faintly offensive proclamation of Timeline displaying ‘everything about you in one place’, Facebook does not, and cannot, fully comprehend the varied nuances of a human intellect. For most, Facebook is a platform for maintaining contact with friends and areas of interest, or finding out about future events; it is not a complete replica of their consciousness. The Man can only reap what we sow. Of course there are those who go a bit PDA (affection, annoyance, anatomy) all over your Newsfeed. They will be the mainstay of Graph Search with every check-in, Instagram or ‘like’ buoying the service. Beyond them however, Facebook’s idea of one-day suggesting dentists or plumbers common amongst your friends is laughable – not least for the excellent trolling opportunities. I, at least, hope life never gets to a point where I consider ‘liking’ my dentist.
Despite the extent to which Facebook, and other social media, has integrated itself into our quotidien it has not yet reached a point of replacing the innate human need for first-hand contact. Inevitably there will be some willing to bare their souls – check out Wired’s Ryan Tate professing to have become an addict – but this could be a crucial point for many users to reassess. A website mediating our view of the world, felt through the precise wording of an update or framing of a photograph, is more than enough; suggesting who should tile your bathroom, as is their projected aim, is a step too far. Life cannot be qualified through the web alone. That way WALL-E dystopia lies. We need to snap ourselves out of the introspective inertia that Facebook etc. perpetuate and reassert our autonomy by refusing to catalogue every moment of our lives.