July 15, 2013, 11:44 AM — Facebook in January trumpeted Graph Search as the social network's "third pillar" (pillars one and two are Timeline and News Feed), which sounds very impressive and important, but few people have been able to experiment with the tool until now. Last week, the beta of Graph Search finally began rolling out to U.S. users, which means you too can try out the seven-month-old feature. Good news: It's not just for being a creeper. Bad news: Its usefulness is limited. For now.
What's Graph Search good for, anyway?
Graph Search seems like a great idea in theory. Facebook has collected billions, maybe trillions of pieces of data about its users over the last nine years, and making that data searchable is a natural move.
Graph Search isn't turned on automatically, so your first step is activating the new feature in the search bar. Facebook will walk you through it. Once Graph Search is on, Facebook prompts you to "search for people, places, and things." Start typing. Graph Search is supposed to recognize natural language and try to guess what you're looking for, though that feature is hit or miss at the moment. You'll quickly learn the phrases that will help you get to some sort of result: "Friends who listen to Daft Punk and live in San Francisco" or "Friends of my friends who work at TechHive." It's not exactly a conversational way to search.
Right now, Graph Search is another in a long line of Facebook features designed to suck up your time and productivity. Case in point: photos. A search for photos of my friends who live in San Francisco turns up hundreds of photos dating back years, some of which have been removed from my friends' Timelines but remain easily viewable thanks to Graph Search. This feature can be useful: I searched for photos of my friends who visited Hawaii, because I just returned from a trip to Oahu and wanted to see their photos of the islands. But it also gives you the ability to search for incriminating photos of your ex, or for others to find terrible photos of you. Dislike.
In a promotional video, Facebook hypes Graph Search as a great way to find a dentist when you move to a new city. I highly doubt many people are checking in at their dentist's office or liking their dentist's page on Facebook. (If their dentist even has a page on Facebook.) This is what Yelp is for. Facebook could add a Yelp-like review element so your friends could offer recommendations for specific dentists. If you're looking for a new restaurant, your friends could offer Facebook tips on dishes to order that would turn up in a search for "food my friends in San Francisco recommend." That would be much more useful.
Facebook is also pushing Graph Search as a way to meet new people--you can search for people in your city in a specific age range with certain interests--but most of us use Facebook to connect with people we already know. Would you accept a friend request from a stranger just because you happen to live in the same city and you both like to ride bikes?
Graph Search is still in beta, and Facebook has indicated that the product will change over the years. If the results improve, Facebook's search could become a powerful engine. Graph Search isn't yet available for mobile, a slight that doesn't really fit in with Facebook's smartphone thrust. Every feature should be designed with mobile in mind.
Privacy settings: Pay attention
As is usually the case with Facebook, privacy concerns with Graph Search are huge. The engine dives deeply into the information you've posted on Facebook over the years. It also pulls from photos your friends have tagged you in and status updates that mention you: basically, anything that has your name on it is fair game in Graph Search's crawl. There's no opting out.
You're going to want to drop what you're doing right now and open up your Facebook privacy settings. Under "who can see my stuff?" is your activity log. Here we go: Start looking at what you've posted, posts you're tagged in, photos, likes, comments, and more. If you don't like what you see, start deleting.
Do a couple of test runs in the new search bar to see what information Graph Search finds about you. Unflattering five-year-old photos you hid from your timeline but didn't untag? Yeah, Graph Search finds those. Untag, untag, and untag some more.
Clean up your likes, too. If you once gave the thumbs up to a controversial political cause or an embarrassing musician, Graph Search will find it. Do you really want to turn up in a search result for "friends of my friends who like One Direction?" Do you?!
Graph Search's potential to humiliate users is a bit unsettling, even though everyone offers up information willingly. We never expected our lives to become searchable, our friendships to become data points. But, like all Facebook changes, Graph Search is here to stay. Get used to it, or delete your account for two days to protest and reactivate when you miss wasting hours searching for "friends of my friends who live in Paris." (I'm a little bitter at how many results this search turned up, by the way.)