After the social media giant announced its much-anticipated search function, Tom Chatfield wonders whether all its users are created equal, or has it become easy to game the system for personal profit?

When Facebook announced its much-anticipated Graph Search earlier this week, there were two questions underpinning most commentators’ responses: will this make a lot of money, and can it beat Google at its own game?

So far as the first question is concerned, the stock market response – an initial dip of around three per cent – suggested caution verging on disappointment. On the second front, however, there has been greater optimism, not least because Facebook seems to have invented a whole new game of its own: the world’s first truly social search function.

As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg explained at the launch event, while search engines like Google are all about links, Graph Search is about answers: “Web search is designed to take any open-ended query and give you links that might have answers... Graph Search is designed to take a precise query and give you an answer, not give you links that might provide the answer".

These answers, moreover, will be entirely drawn from your individual “social graph” of friends. Type in a complex query – “people I know in New York who like video games”, or “friends who enjoy both modernist novels and hot chocolate” – and a sortable list pops up based on people who have “liked” these topics. You can search where your friends have been, what they’ve done, what they’re interested in, and how they rated all of these experiences.

The system remains in beta, but advertisers, recruiters and brands are already salivating at the opportunities. So too, no doubt, are users hoping to meet attractive friends of friends, now all they have to do is type in search terms like “people who like Star Wars and are single” – photos being another major part of Graph Search. It’s big news for businesses and individuals alike, not to mention lovelorn geeks.

Beyond this, though, Facebook’s decision to turn its data into an unprecedented playing field for social discovery also says something significant about the future of the internet, and its ever-closer integration with daily life.

Once upon a time, most people used online services from behind at least a thin veil of anonymity. Search and discovery were impersonal: driven by the measurement of global trends and the aggregated analysis of millions of users’ actions.

Arguably the biggest oversight in the history of companies like Google was their underestimation of people’s desire to personalise this experience. Using search engines to discover accurate results was all very well – but a still greater hunger existed for information defined not by its ranking, but by who it came from. Even the arbitrary mutterings of someone we know or admire (even if it is a Z-list celebrity) are more interesting to most of us, most of the time, than mere knowledge.

As Elise Ackerman put it in her analysis of Graph Search for Forbes, “some ‘likes’ are worth more than others”. Not all users are created equal, and the more that anonymity is replaced by the encroaching real world of fame, friends, status and followers, the more this inequality becomes an embedded part of the daily business of digital living.

Playing for perks

None of which should be much of a surprise to those accustomed to celebrities like Snoop Dogg or Kim Kardashian hawking products to their millions of Twitter followers. What began with these fortunate few, however, is a pattern that increasingly applies to us all.

Inequality isn’t just about social status, of course. As more and more of the world comes online across a greater variety of devices, we inexorably face a more unequal global internet: different speeds, different restrictions, different services and rights. By putting network effects at the heart of not only social interactions, but also information discovery and dissemination, Facebook is feeding this unevenness – and helping us all, along the way, to work our particular assets for all they’re worth.

It’s easy to see how this system can be gamed. Visited a restaurant and enjoyed the experience? Write a favourable review for money off next time. Haven’t visited a restaurant, but have lots of friends and followers? Earn cash in hand for claiming that you visited and loved every minute.

Social networks are not, in this sense, a levelling force so much as a vast magnifying glass applied to human nature, accentuating that which is already there – contacts, celebrity, exclusivity, excitement and attractiveness included.

None of which is to suggest Facebook’s Graph Search is destined for triumph, or that it’s only about fame and freebies. What it is, however, is a sign of a digital culture increasingly rooted in real lives and locations; or at least in certain clickable, measurable aspects of them. Playing the system brings its perks – and opting out means missing out in real as much as virtual terms.

In the end, Facebook just wants to make us happy: to help us get more of what we want, when we want it, from whom we want. It doesn’t matter whether the details involve fine dining, exclusive fragrances, ski trips, or special offers at Burger King – it still means recruiting each one of us as part-time publicists, broadcasters, reviewers and self-promoters.

The catch, as Pinboard founder Maciej Ceglowski argued back in November 2011, is what incentives this particular vision places on our relationships. “We have a name for the kind of person who collects a detailed, permanent dossier on everyone they interact with, with the intent of using it to manipulate others for personal advantage,” he noted. “We call that person a sociopath.”

Ceglowski’s words are a warning rather than a prophecy, but they’re also something we need to take seriously. In the age of an increasingly unequal internet, where relationships and endorsements alike are saleable commodities, the rewards for tapping into our inner sociopaths have rarely been more tempting. Win or lose, however, some games are never worth playing.

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