Friendship Metadata: Facebook's new graph search

What do I know about my friends? Well, lots. I know my friend Ty tells jokes and I know what tends to bother him. I know a couple books he read last year, what he does on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and where he lives.

Facebook MetadataAnd not so much. For instance, I could drive to Ty’s house, but I don’t recall the house number, or even the street for that matter. I know Ty’s age, but God help me if I can remember when his birthday is (I have trouble remembering my own family birthdays!) I absolutely don’t know his shoe size, and couldn’t make a list of the schools he went to growing up.

But Facebook can.

Last week I got added toFacebook’s “Graph Search” preview, which gives you a Google-like search box to paw through your friends' meta-data.  You can search for:

  • “Friends who currently live in Minnesota”
  • “Music my friends who work at [workplace] like”
  • My Buddhist friends who went to Kubasaki High School in 1994Using Facebook graph search screenshot

Metadata is, you know, data about data. It’s that part of the Word document (do we use those any more?) that has the Author Name but isn’t our actual (half-finished) Rhetoric homework. It’s the GPS coordinates of the Walgreens that Google doesn’t show you but uses to locate it on the map. Most often it’s sortable and measurable. A number or a list.

People carry tons of meta-data. Even before the facebook-era. We’ve always has small snapshots of it being recorded: like the “M or F” and our height (feet and inches) on our driver’s license. It's weird:  it’s both impersonal and very personal, isn’t it? Most of us don’t think our driver’s license carries the essence of us. But we also don’t love it when acquaintances grab it to take a look.

Facebook graph search options

This is what I wonder about with Facebook’s new graph search. How personal or impersonal is it?

Facebook can’t categorize much of the knowledge about someone that we associate with being close—say, mood or shared experiences. But the impersonal information, once filtered and arranged, can feel intimate. My closest friends can't list my three high schools. Do I care? Not particularly. It’s too detailed to expect. But someone who searches the Facebook social graph for the same info—suddenly it’ll feel like something only a good friend might (should!) know. Why?

Initial reactions to the Graph Search will be, like they always are, indiscriminate worries about privacy and Facebook ruining our lives. Many people will close their accounts (only to open them again a week later on a bored Thursday evening). Advocacy groups will file privacy law briefings with the courts.

But the issue will fade. And not because Facebook caves, but because we will start “not caring.” It won’t be because we can’t sustain the fight, but because we will simply grow accustomed to new definitions of personal and impersonal. Our Facebook meta-data—the numbers and lists about us—won’t seem so bad. I might actually remember a few more birthdays.