Thursday January 24, 2013
Rewired: In search of a bonanza
By NIKI CHEONG
Facebook’s new feature seeks to capitalise on its vast repository of information – and our increasing dependence on search engines.
LAST week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced the social networking site’s latest feature, Graph Search. The feature is currently in beta testing by selected users, and basically allows you to search within the walls of Facebook as opposed to the whole World Wide Web, as you can do with search sites like Google.
As usual, with any big new launch by the popular site, critics have come out complaining about privacy issues. Reports have already noted that Facebook, in anticipation of this announcement, had done away with its previous feature which allowed users to opt out of searches.
Something else is happening here, however. There seems to be more attention from the tech media focussing on what this new search feature holds for the future, and what it means for companies like Google.
Graph Search relies on Facebook’s existing features – Likes, lists, tags and such – to provide answers to searches such as “What movies do my friends like” or “Photos from Langkawi”.
Comparisons to Google are inevitable and, in many ways, justified. After all, it was the search giant that attempted to take the first hit when it introduced “social search” last year through its Search Plus Your World, which looks for the best answers within your Google+ network.
One reason why it never really took off, some analysts claim, is because Google+ as a social network has nothing compared to the vast data and information that Facebook has collected over the years from its one billion (and counting) users.
Rivalries and privacy issues aside, this seems the natural direction for Facebook. After all, since the emergence of the Web, search has become an increasingly greater part of the average Internet user’s life. However, because this practice is so embedded, we often do not think about it except when we deliberately visit a search site.
These days, we are constantly searching. E-mail services and software all integrate search capabilities so that we no longer have to endlessly scroll to look for old e-mail. We use bookmarking tools like Delicious or note-taking systems like Evernote to digitise our personal archives. We rely on hashtags on services like Twitter to help us categorise and search based on topics. And the list continues.
Sociologist Alexander Halavais, in his seminal book Search Engine Society, noted: “In an era in which knowledge is the only bankable commodity, search engines own the exchange floor.”
Halavais’ book looks at search engines from an academic and critical perspective, studying the way they function as well as their impact on culture, economics and politics. He speaks of the way major players in the search industry might manage, manipulate and present search results – which some people believe to be self-serving – and also looks at the way new platforms such as blogs might be disrupting this structure.
He wrote: “The query and search strategy is likely to change as more information becomes available.”
In short, Halavais saw all this coming. And if he is right, and the trend appears to be leaning in that direction, it is about time that the general user takes a more distinct interest in search – not only in terms of what these search engines (and now social networks) can offer consumers but also in what way consumers are being turned into commodities.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how people are increasingly being shaped as commodities on digital platforms, citing social networking services like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as examples.
The same is happening with companies which specialise in search, and we must constantly ask ourselves what kind of information we are putting out there, and what personal data of ours these companies have access to, among other questions.
With sharing becoming such a big part of the culture that digital citizens have adopted, we also need to remember what kind of information we are making accessible to others in terms of our bookmarking, adding things to our favourites, or categorising things into lists which are publicly available.
The issue here isn’t just about privacy and access to data.
We also need to consider what responsibilities we have in putting out information in the digital space. This responsibility comes in many forms such as in dealing with misinformation (mistakes) and disinformation (deliberate inaccuracies).
Then we also need to think about what kind of information about other people we’re putting out there that might end up being made publicly available. Would you want a photo with you looking silly, for example, posted by your friend on his or her Facebook page for everyone to see?
Then there is also the whole culture of contributing to this repository of knowledge (namely, the Internet). Last week, I wrote about how the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz dedicated his life to ensuring that information and data are available on the Internet for free.
If we share that ideal, then we can also contribute by making the things we put online – text, pictures, videos – more easily searchable through accurate metadata in the form of captions, tagging and the like.
There is no denying that we now live in a search-engine society. This is not a bad thing and it has made life much easier for us. Facebook’s foray into this area looks set to open up new possibilities (and spur others to be equally innovative), which will benefit users in general.
As it is with any society or community we live in, the way we choose to operate in this one is key.
Niki Cheong is a writer, consultant and speaker on media and digital culture. Connect with him online at www.nikicheong.com or on Twitter via @nikicheong.