Farhad Manjoo’s piece about Facebook Graph Search is the best possible case for why we should care about Facebook Graph Search, which leads ineluctably to the conclusion that we shouldn’t care about Facebook Graph Search. Here’s the sort of thing that Facebook Graph Search lets you do, according to Manjoo:
The most interesting searches weren’t necessarily the most complicated, but those that asked Facebook to combine its knowledge in ways that other sites can’t. In an effort to suss out authentic cuisine, I tried, “Mexican restaurants in New York liked by people from Mexico.”
Let’s pick apart what’s wrong about this. First, the problem for any search engine is that it has to be not only better than Google, but better than Google by enough of a margin to make switching worthwhile. So you have to ask yourself whether searching like this is going to get you better results than just Googling for [authentic Mexican New York]; and if it does get you better results, will it require a lot more effort to do so? How about if you, like many people, eventually find websites that you trust for food questions? (Me, I use Chowhound.) How easily can you answer this Mexican-restaurant question by narrowing your search to Yelp?
Much more fundamentally, though, the problem with Facebook Graph Search is that it’s for people who don’t want to interact with people. Look at Manjoo’s Mexican-food example: I’m supposed to ask Facebook to search among those people who are from Mexico. Why wouldn’t I, instead, just ask people from Mexico? It’s supposed to be a social network, right? Like, with people? So shouldn’t I ask people things? Manjoo wishes he could ask FGS about “running shoes liked by people who have run marathons”; I know what I’d do in that case: I’d post on my friend Laura’s wall (or better yet, email Laura), “Hey Laura: which shoes should I get?”
In its defense, maybe FGS will not just query what my friends like, but rather query what all Facebook users like. But if that’s true, FGS is even less valuable: I don’t care what all Facebook users like. I hardly care what’s outside my own network, contra Manjoo’s example of searching for “photos of friends of friends who like Girls who live in NYC who are single women between 20 and 34 and like Arcade Fire.” That is a question that no one has ever had or will ever have. Either you’re querying the tastes of people you know, or you’re querying the tastes of strangers. And if you’re querying the tastes of strangers, why not use a site that makes no pretense about being “social” — like Google or, in that Arcade Fire dating example, like OkCupid?
The useless use cases come thick and fast in Manjoo’s article. I’m thankful for that, because he’s trying as hard as he can to show why we should care about this thing; given that no one could possibly care about these examples, there must be no reason to care about FGS. Like this:
What captivated me was Facebook’s search interface. It’s unlike any search box you’ve ever used. Google’s search is based on keywords. If you type “restaurants chicago” into Google, it guesses that you’re looking for restaurants in the city even though you typed just two nouns. Facebook, by comparison, wants you to connect nouns with verbs. You can ask, “restaurants in Chicago,” or “restaurants liked by people who live in Chicago” or “restaurants liked by my friends who are from Chicago.” (The search box offers drop-down suggestions as you type, so you don’t usually have to finish writing these full queries.)
This method of searching is instantly intuitive. After just a few queries, I started asking the engine for more and more complicated things, just to see if it could keep up. I tried: “My friends of friends who work in Palo Alto, California and are from California and are male and who like Indian restaurants.”
Is natural-language searching something that anyone needs? Was it a problem that Google required you to search for [restaurants chicago] rather than “I would like to know where to eat a meal in Chicago”? This is a natural-language solution in search of a keyword problem.
If you want to know “restaurants liked by my friends who are from Chicago”, shouldn’t you ask your Chicago friends which restaurants they like?
The fact that Facebook and Manjoo think there’s a problem a computer can solve here is bottomlessly sad to me. It exposes a deep poverty of interpersonal relationships.