When Facebook announced in January that it was coming out with a search function, people flipped out about the privacy implications. As it turned out, though, Facebook's "Graph Search" wasn't actually that powerful, and it's hard to say how many people really used it. It could answer queries about people's likes and basic profile information, but not about their actual posts or status updates.
That's about to change. This week, Facebook announced that it's starting to roll out an update to Graph Search that allows people to run searches like, "Posts about the government shutdown by my friends," or "Posts about the government shutdown by my friends who are Republicans," or maybe, "Status updates about drinking by my friends from 2006." It actually sounds kind of fun, if you're the one doing the searching. Less so if you're the one who forgot to set those embarrassing old posts to "private." (In which case, here's how to change that before it's too late)
As with just about everything Facebook does these days, the feature is careful to observe the specific privacy settings of everyone's posts, so if you set yours to "friends only," then they'll only turn up in your friends' search results. But as TechCrunch's Josh Constine points out, the expanded Graph Search may amount to the end of "privacy by obscurity" on the site:
Before Timeline, your old posts were essentially locked away behind hundreds of clicks of the "more posts" button at the bottom of your profile. This is known as "privacy by obscurity." Technically your old content was still accessible, but it was really tough to find, essentially making the past a secret.
Now those old posts can be dredged up with the right search terms.
Even so, Graph Search seems unlikely to suddenly become popular with the average user. The wonky syntax required to return the proper results may deter people who are accustomed to being able to phrase their queries however they like on Google.
Instead, for the time being, it may appeal more to people like journalists, who'll be able to search things like, "Posts about flooding written by people in Colorado," and police, who in theory could run a search for "Status updates about drinking from people who live in Springfield and are under 21." Oh, and don't forget BuzzFeed listicle-makers, who will no longer be forced to rely exclusively on Twitter to find people saying racist things about whomever is in the news at the moment. If you thought there were a lot of bigoted morons on Twitter, just wait 'til you see how many there are on Facebook.
How's that for making the world more open and connected?
-- Will Oremus is the lead blogger for Future Tense, reporting on emerging technologies, tech policy and digital culture.