Graph: Facebook's Attempt to Be More Than Just a Big Time Suck

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With its new search tool, Facebook is aiming to be more than an online social space -- it wants to be a resource too.

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Speaking in broad generalities, Facebook is for fun. It's where you go to procrastinate, to chat with your friends, and to consume media (articles, videos, movies, etc.) that they have shared with you and that has been pushed at you via your News Feed.

Google, on the other hand, is useful. If you need a piece of information -- directions, a historical fact, movie listings, news, etc. -- Google is often your first stop.

For the most part, that division is a pretty good characterization of these two Internet giants' separate spheres. Of course, Facebook is useful in the sense that having friends and staying connected with them is "useful," but it's not a tool primarily for research. Sure, you can ask people for information (movies they've liked recently, or a good Italian place nearby), but the system is not designed to facilitate finding out the answers to those sorts of queries.

With "Graph," the new Facebook search tool introduced yesterday, Facebook is making a play become a bit more useful -- to become not just a place to socialize, but also a place to find out information. Though that is traditionally Google's territory, the kinds of information Facebook can access are quite different than Google's, and, for the most part, Graph shouldn't hamper Google all that much.

This effort by Facebook to become a resource means handing over the reins to users. "Facebook today -- there's all this stuff, all this content that people have shared with you. The product, up until now, has had these two main pillars that you can think of as queries into this data that people have shared with you," Lars Rasmussen, one of Graph's creators, told me on the phone. These two pillars -- News Feed and Timeline -- make the user experience a bit passive, in a sense. You log on and see your News Feed, where information that your friends have shared is delivered directly to you. Timelines, too, tell you a "story," as Facebook likes to call it, that a user has curated. But you don't craft the query yourself, you just explore the query Facebook has already designed. (I once, in a fit of Facebook frustration, blocked everybody's updates from appearing in my News Feed, trying to make a more active user experience for myself. But this effort ran against Facebook's grain, and the result was that I soon reverted back, allowing Facebook to give me the experience it designed.)

Graph search will be that more active experience. "Graph search," Rasmussen continued, "is like a third pillar that lets users all of their own views. They get to decide themselves what they want to see instead of Timeline and News Feed, where we have really decided that these are two very interesting views of all of this data. Now you get to create your own."

It may turn out that Graph never becomes a central feature of how people use Facebook -- but that's not, in this case, the mark of whether it's a success or a flop. "I don't think in terms of minutes spent that anything will ever rival the News Feed," Rasmussen said. "If you just look at your use of the web in general, you can kind of think of the ratio of time you spend searching versus just browsing around the web. I suspect if we do our job well, we'll see sort of the same ratio." He continued, "I couldn't imagine where I didn't have search, but in terms of time spent, it's much less time on search than on the actual things that I find."

But even if it does remain a sort of side feature to News Feed, Graph represents a change in kind, not a change of degree, for what's possible with Facebook. It gives users the power to plumb its data-depth for the information they want, not just the information served to them. If it works as well as Rasmussen and his colleagues hope, it won't revolutionize Facebook or the web or anything else, but it will be very, very useful.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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