Facebook launches "Graph Search": future of the web or stalker tools?

And what does it mean for the bottom line.

Facebook yesterday demonstrated its new service, Graph Search. The company is proposing to let people search their "social graph" to find new, useful information. (The social graph is the network of relationships between you, your friends, and their friends. Sadly, it is not a search engine for graphs.)

The company is positioning the search service as a competitor to, well, everything. Search for "music my friends like" – graph search is designed to take natural language input – and you've got something which can take on Last.fm or This is My Jam. Search for "restaurants in London my friends have been to" and you've got a rival to Foursquare. "Friends who work for PWC" could fill the same niche as LinkedIn, and "Photos taken before 1995" offers something which only Flickr does half as well.

The potential is huge, and, judging by Steven Levy's exhaustive behind-the-scenes account (impressive too for the total absence of leaks it resulted in – the man can keep a secret), Facebook is betting the farm on it.

But there're two potential speed-bumps ahead for the company. The first is that perennial Facebook bugbear: privacy. The company is careful to emphasise that only things which are public or shared with you will show up when searched for — but that relies on users understanding how privacy settings actually work, which has historically not been the case. That's not Facebook's fault per se, but it also won't save them from a user back-lash. And as the company has learned before, while it recognises a binary "public/private" divide, most users don't think in such black-and-white terms. The launch of the News Feed, way back in 2006, was widely opposed by existing users, because despite merely aggregating content which was already visible elsewhere, it felt like an infringement of privacy.

Consider: Person A rejects friend requests from Person B who is a creepy stalkerish character. They nonetheless have several mutual friends. Can B search for "Posts by A which friends have commented on"? (Those posts would be visible to B now, but not aggregated in any one place). Similarly, someone who checks into a specific location on a regular routine might not appreciate that suddenly being aggregated together, making the routine clear to all.

Where privacy is emblematic of Facebook's past concerns, the other problem Graph Search faces strikes at the heart of where it's future problems lie. The usefulness of the service is directly tied to people using Facebook the way Facebook wants them to. That means liking a lot of things; filling in all your personal information, and keeping it up to date; checking in every time you go out; and making all of that public, or at least softening your privacy settings.

For many, Facebook has become a glorified PA: it's a way to contact friends whose other details you have lost, and a way to bulk-invite people to social events, but as a social network, its utility is fading. Graph search doesn't seem to do anything to reverse that trend, because it doesn't offer any incentives to change the data you put in to Facebook — just change how you get other people's data out.

Of course, hovering unspoken during the launch is the key question: will this make more companies want to advertise on Facebook, or increase the amount the company can charge for space? The technology underpinning the search will almost certainly help the company provide better services to advertisers, but being useful — to admen or end users — doesn't necessarily translate into revenue.

What the service does demonstrate is the foresightedness of Twitter's broadsides against Instagram, the Facebook-owned photo network. While Instagram was only using its Twitter connection to enable people to export their relationships to the service, Graph Search reveals that the knowledge of those links — the literal social graph — can have intrinsic value. By limiting Facebook's access to Twitter's information, the latter has guaranteed that the former will have to try that little bit harder to get useful results from infrequent users — as well as reserved the possibility that Twitter can launch their own version.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.