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.

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear