Social marketing blogs are abuzz about Facebook’s new Graph Search function. Marketers and PR departments are buying into the hype, with some experts even saying that Graph Search Optimization could be the new SEO.
Though the feature could be a boon to businesses, it is already generating a slew of privacy concerns. Graph Searches allow users to make connections between users, places, interests, and existing social circles. However, the ability of lay people to make these connections so simply can be used to some startling ends. Consider that the query “Friends of friends who are single women and live near me” would, for most people, yield many results that include photos and personal details of the unsuspecting women. “Checking in” to various locations is also of increased importance to Graph Searches, but users who do so also make themselves vulnerable to theft, as 50 New Hampshire Facebook users found out the hard way.
Virtually everything that could go wrong with this system is already being demonstrated, less than a few days into beta testing, on the new Tumblr page “Actual Facebook Graph Searches.”
While some of the queries reveal legitimate privacy or security concerns (such as searches for people who ‘Like’ contraband or banned ideologies/subjects in totalitarian countries), it’s also difficult to avoid that many are unintentionally hilarious or, for anyone who appreciates a little Schadenfreude, just desserts for the over-sharers of the world. Some, like “People who like ‘Focus on the Family’ and ‘Neil Patrick Harris’” paint the users as ideologically incongruous. Yet I have a very hard time finding any sympathy whatsoever for the nearly 100 people whose photographs show up with the query “Married people who like [cheating spouse social network] Ashley Madison.” Nor will I be crying foul when the companies turning up on “Employers of people who like Racism” start handing out pink slips.
This raises the question: Is the Graphic Search function really a privacy violation, or is it simply a clearer illustration of what most of us media commentators already know—that voluntarily putting your personal information out on the internet can (and will) come back to bite you?
Many Facebook users may not even be aware of the amount of possibly incriminating information they are revealing about themselves in using the site. The rhetorical choices forced by Facebook’s platform certainly contribute to this ignorance, and are reinforced by the site’s cultural ubiquity. Facebook users define themselves in terms of their interests as much as they do their own words, and that phenomenon has become a norm to the extent that most users don’t consider the implications of hitting the “Like” button. But the Tumblr site above has already gone viral, and its illustrations of the cost of over-sharing may be enough to make some users question whether sharing their personal details is worth the risk.
The differing points of view on Graph Search may both be correct. While this advent may be good for businesses and certain kinds of consumers, it can and will have unintended effects on individuals. Whether the privacy concerns being raised in the Beta testing will cause enough panic among users to make them less inclined to share personal information, and thus weaken the tool’s potential for marketing, remains to be seen. Facebook may choose to tweak the feature before rolling it out to the broader public, but let it serve as a reminder that it’s never too late to update your privacy settings.