Facebook Graph Search is pointless, says Farhad Manjoo without meaning to — January 16, 2013

Facebook Graph Search is pointless, says Farhad Manjoo without meaning to

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 werent necessarily the most complicated, but those that asked Facebook to combine its knowledge in ways that other sites cant. 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 Facebooks search interface. Its unlike any search box youve ever used. Googles search is based on keywords. If you type restaurants chicago into Google, it guesses that youre 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 dont 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.

I still need someone to explain to me what problem Google Plus solves, and why it’s not creating other problems that I find way more annoying — July 19, 2011

I still need someone to explain to me what problem Google Plus solves, and why it’s not creating other problems that I find way more annoying

I am now on Google+, because men of my ilk are required to join new services such as this. But it is not solving a problem I have. It’s just creating more problems.

I left Twitter some months ago, because my workflow was like this:

1. post to Twitter.
2. have the post automatically mirrored to Facebook.
3. flip over to Facebook to make sure that the post replicated.
4. if it took more than a minute to replicate, refresh a few times before giving up with an odd, low-level form of nervousness.

I was connected to all the same people on Twitter that I was connected to on Facebook. Granted, there were others on Twitter who were not on Facebook, like famous people or, to put it another way, people with whom the interaction was expected to be more one-way. I followed Chris Onstad, author of Achewood, for instance. It was fun. His Twitter feed is hilarious. I followed the author of a book I really loved, and to my great surprise and pleasure he connected me with the [newspaper: Boston Globe] to write a piece for them. So I can definitely say that Twitter was good for my wallet.

But it was also really distracting, for reasons I laid out in that piece. And I don’t have the self-control to be connected to two social networks and yet only check them occasionally. Nor do I have the self-control to prevent myself from refreshing email dozens of times a day. Email by now is in fact a reflex. But at least email isn’t getting new updates constantly. And the fun of Twitter is following lots of interesting people saying lots of interesting things. It was *too* fun, honestly. Sad to say. It’s taken me until age 33 to realize that I actually have to talk myself down from unhealthy habits; I literally have to say to myself, “Yes, you want a milkshake from Toscanini’s made with burnt-caramel ice cream and a shot of espresso. But 1) those are empty calories, 2) you can use that $5 for something better, 3) you’re trying to cut down on your caffeine intake, aren’t you?” I probably should have been doing this throughout my life. In any case, I’m starting now, and it seems to be working.

So I ended up thinking that it was better to concentrate on one social network, namely Facebook, and ditch the rest. Really, it’s probably best to go with zero social networks, but Facebook is essentially inevitable now. Many websites require you to use a single-sign-on platform, and OpenID is dead; Facebook is the only one left. Google, as I recall, tried OpenID. OpenID sucked. So a Facebook account is … well, “necessary” isn’t the word, but it would certainly be annoying to go without one.

Also, though, Google+ isn’t solving a problem that I have. Its main innovation, so far as I can tell, is that it makes the concept of a “circle” fundamental: circles for friends, circles for acquaintances, circles for colleagues, etc. Others have the problem that they need their messages to go to specific circles; I do not. The problem is supposed to be that, say, you want to write naughty words, but don’t want your grandmother to read them; or that you want to bust on your coworkers but don’t want your coworkers to read it; or some such. First of all, Facebook offers enough in this direction that Google+ is not really solving a real problem. For instance, I was connected on Facebook to my girlfriend’s son, and I set up permissions such that he couldn’t see a lot of what I posted. Problem solved. I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of those blocks, too: coworkers have clearly put me on a “don’t share your Wall with coworkers” rule set. Facebook also offers a nice preview feature, which allows you to see how your profile looks when visited by a specific Friendster of yours.

More fundamentally, having to figure out who should read a given post and who shouldn’t is the kind of psychic weight that I try very hard to cast off. “Should this go to Acquaintances, or only to Friends?” is a question which, when asked often enough, will eventually rub my mind raw.

I’d much prefer to just post whatever comes to my mind to Facebook or Twitter, and let people decide whether they want to read it. On the receiving side, I’m sure Facebook has enough intelligent algorithms to decide whether you find my posts interesting; if it doesn’t think you do, they won’t show up in your feed. If you think I swear too much, you can ignore my posts. If you really hate me, you can defriend me.

Mark Zuckerberg, I’m told, said at one point that people should have just one persona, which is on display at all times. At some level this is wrong: I make dirty jokes with some people but not with my mother; I have one side of my personality that really likes discussing policy and theory, but that side will quickly put itself into hiding if it senses that the people around it just don’t care about those things.

But the costs of having different personalities on the web — one for Acquaintances, one for Friends, one for Policy Wonks — exceed the gains, for me anyway. I’d much prefer to put all those personalities together into one feed. I suspect the audience finds this more interesting, in any case: much better to get the occasional notional pornography title (a category of Facebook post that I very much enjoy writing) amidst links about health insurance, I think, than to get a steady diet of one or the other. I could be wrong about this, in which case my audience would prefer that I put different ideas in different channels. Not my problem. I guess Google+ is designed for people who think that *is* their problem.

Google+, I gather, came out of watching people’s occasional paroxysms of anger against Facebook’s privacy problems. But people don’t really care about their privacy; if they did, Twitter wouldn’t be popular. In Twitter, everything you write is visible to the world. Had Facebook decreed from early on that everything you post is public, people would have nothing to be angry about. It’s the perception of a bait-and-switch that angers people about Facebook; it is manifestly *not* that people care about their privacy. So inasmuch as Google+ gives people more privacy than Facebook, it’s not offering the world a solution to any problem that the world actually suffers from.

Neither Google nor Facebook actually cares about privacy. What they want is to sell ads, or to otherwise monetize their social networks. That means, as the saying goes, that “if you’re not paying for a product, *you’re* the product.” They’re selling *you* to advertisers. So at a fundamental level — the level of what keeps the lights on in Google’s and Facebook’s datacenters — neither of them is actually interested in your privacy. Neither of them *could* be interested in your privacy. If Google+ has any actual appeal, it’s the perception that it won’t bait-and-switch you. But that’s just responding to an accident of Facebook’s history. If Facebook were born now, it would be Twitter, and everything would be public. Not baiting-and-switching on privacy is not the basis for a network that people should care about.

What I get with Google+, then, is the solution to a privacy non-problem and the creation of groups of acquaintances that cause me stress without solving any problem I have. Can someone point me to some really killer feature that I should know about?

I am often a curmudgeon about new technology, but it’s not out of reflexive hostility toward new things. It’s that I really need people to prove to me why I need something. I was this way with the iPhone and the Mac, but eventually the tipping point came where it was obvious that the iPhone and the Mac were just better than every one of their competitors, and that there was no legitimate reason to avoid buying one. So I’m more than open to being convinced that I should use Google+. I just need to be convinced that it a) solves a problem I have and b) is better than Facebook. Thus far I’ve not been convinced.