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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.