I watched the teaser for Facebook’s graph search this week, and if you haven’t been paying attention to this new tool, I suggest taking a look. Putting aside individual opinions about the value of social media more broadly, graph search has the potential to change the how and what of online information access, and for that, it is worth viewing. Plus, the video is fun; the creative team at Facebook created an experience that one might liken to Dorothy opening the door to the colorful land of Oz.
To give a brief and simplified overview, graph search appears to be the superhero version of search. By triangulating search results, it produces responses that are specific to one’s specified place, time and social relationships. Unlike the plethora of ‘related links’ spit out by other search engines, graph search offers customized, relevant and socially endorsed answers to search questions, or so it claims (the beta version has only been rolled out to select audiences). This means that your search responses are based not only on a set location and time period but also on who you know.
As with most new technologies, graph search has incited both optimism around its potential value to society and fear regarding its threat. To jump on the latter bandwagon, I do think the introduction of graph search raises interesting questions about equal access to information—questions that seem to have been lost in the uproar of concerns around potential privacy violations and increased market infiltration.
While the internet has served an important role in eliminating barriers to information, its reputation as the great equalizer has been challenged by the cost of computers, stratified connection speeds and differences in cultural capital. As I discuss in another blog, these access filters have continued (and perhaps even been amplified) with the development of social media platforms. And now, the introduction of graph search inserts a new element into the equation: social capital.
The value of our social capital (the resources we acquire through our social networks) is nothing new. Most of us who have been on the job market have, at some point, been advised to “network” in order to increase our social capital, and subsequently, our chances of finding and landing a job.
From research, we have also learned that all social networks are not created equal. Social networks vary in both content and structure. Some networks contain higher value resources and information than others, and networks that are larger and sparser tend to be more resource-rich. Thus, you can see that opportunities such as being on a university campus or traveling abroad might improve one’s social capital by providing access to a greater diversity of contacts and potentially higher prestige contacts.
In general, Facebook has always made social capital more pertinent, enhancing our ability to connect with network contacts that are both near and far. Graph search takes it a step further though. It makes social capital a mediating factor in the relationship between access to technology and access to information.
With traditional search platforms, similar search queries provided consistent results, making access to online information relatively equitable given equal access to technology (although one could argue that cultural capital plays a role in informing the query itself). Graph search disrupts this, providing varying results to similar searches based on one’s social network. We may have equal access to technology and input the same query, but we no longer have access to the same information. In this way, graph search further undermines the democratizing power of the internet.
With all the excitement about graph search, I think it is important to consider this rather profound impact on our relationship to information, and the role the tool may play in enhancing or limiting social mobility.