Thoughts on Facebook’s Graph Search, and the (near) future of Social

I have had a few weeks to play with Facebook’s Graph Search since it was introduced as a Limited Beta earlier this year. It doesn’t (yet) do a lot of what I expected of it, but it has been interesting and, in some ways, ‘surprisingly’ useful.

Why use the word surprising? Because of the relational nature of how it works. At present, it works at the object level of people and pages. What does that mean? – You can use it to discover links between people, or between people and their photographs, places, restaurants, games, music, movies – but you can do it only at the ‘page’ level.

Having ‘liked’ a page adds it to the pool of data – but specific posts, or “likes” on the broader web through Facebook’s Social Plugins don’t yet reflect within search parameters. Graph Search presently shows us some new ways of connecting people – through status or interests – that didn’t exist earlier.

But let’s face it. What we’re really waiting for is the next phase – search access across the entire Graph. Why is that interesting? Let’s look at it from three different perspectives:

A)   Users: For active users, Timelines serve as a fantastic repository of data that we have discovered or shared during our time on the network. For the pool of idea sharers on Facebook, enabling search at this object level would truly make search interesting – it certainly beats 30 scrolls to get to that report you posted a month ago.

In terms of networks, Twitter is a river – you don’t necessarily expect to go back and get data – but it still offers a ‘Favorite’ button – which is a lot like bookmarking content you liked. Facebook on the other hand, is the sea. A more permanent repository of your mindspace, as close to a ‘quantified’ virtual self as you can get. You could even make the argument that services like Second Life never quite took off, because their roles were subsumed by something more organic and less alien to behavioral adoption – Facebook.

Parsing Facebook’s Timelines real-time would potentially collapse their servers today, which is probably why they aren’t yet there. But as their Graph Search algorithm evolves, and server processing horsepower catches up, this will be an incredibly important tool for users to manage their own data / interact better with data their friends post to the network.

B)    Monetization: One might argue that Facebook’s big monetization challenge is harnessing intent. I argued in a short essay a couple of years ago that Google didn’t really need Google+ to take off as a network as long as people populated their “+1” database. When users search on Google, they are, by virtue of keying in their search query, expressing intent – and since Google’s monetization comes by being relevant in search, all they really need is a +1, which is almost as good as a proper “post” in terms of indicating endorsement by the user. Posts help in creating stronger endorsements – so posts with more +1s might be considered to be more relevant, or ‘cleaner’.

Google’s ‘graph’ is called the ‘Knowledge Graph’ – because its job is to give you data you want. Facebook’s graph today is called the ‘Open Graph’ – but what it really needs to develop over the next year, is an ‘Intent Graph’. Intent. That is what you need to figure out when monetizing through advertising. Google has intent because you’ve told it what you want. Facebook needs to uncover intent, understand latent needs, trigger conspicuous forms of consumption (forms of social buying outside of the sort of discounting practices we’ve seen on the web so far, more like events, concerts, even utilities – but more on this in “C”)

Broadening Graph Search to smaller objects will very likely take a lot more processing horsepower as I mentioned earlier, but it is at that granular level where Facebook will be able to move from serving up ads that you might be interested in, to projecting what you want. Again, this is not meant to be intrusive or glorify ‘conspicuous consumption’, but rather to help certain forms of real-life behavior translate more organically to the social web.

What is it that we buy? Advertisers buy ad time because of metrics that offer them a certain “predictability” linking ad spend to purchases. Consumers use products or services because they offer them a “predictable” outcome through consumption. That is the purpose of the notion of the ‘intent graph’ – to make behavior and consumption predictable, and therefore scalable and sustainable. Which leads me to C.

C)   The Invisible Continent: We’ve seen the stories about Facebook being larger than most countries in the World in terms of active users. What’s next? Well consider three ‘macro’ factors we’re looking at around the world today:

a.      There are pages and pages of literature now on subjects like this, and a broader cultural movement that may or may not be related to the demographic shift towards Gen’s X, Y and Z that trust conglomerates less and demand more individual growth and fulfillment.

b.     We’ve seen the rise of artisanal endeavors, micro-manufacturing, and re-localization of businesses; alongside the rise of technologies like 3D printers that further facilitate / accelerate this change. And

c.      We’re seeing a broader breakdown of the old economy. Governments are struggling to resuscitate growth because of many reasons. Confidence and liquidity are two sides of the same coin, and there isn’t as much confidence as there used to be, even with low interest rates in many economies alongside tax breaks to entrepreneurial endeavors. And finally, mega corporations are struggling at two levels – growth, and finding the right people. And while there are calls to ‘fix education’ to produce more skilled labor to work for corporations, what’s more likely to happen is further contraction for major corporations and the rise of smaller businesses.

There are four firms positioned to help birth this new World today. The two that are most ready are amazon and eBay. Their respective ‘Marketplace Seller’ models are a viable backbone for this kind of behavior. And then there’s Google and Facebook. What Facebook has that the other three don’t, is a ‘social’ environment with an Apple-esque ‘Walled Garden’ in terms of design and function. They can facilitate while still controlling aspects of design, alongside limiting potential downsides like oversharing / commerce featuring explicitly on your newsfeed – something people are unlikely to want. Facebook could do for brick-and-mortar startups – what Apple did for app developers – create an economic ecosystem overnight. Sure, this point is further out than the more immediate natures of A) and B), but this is perhaps something to watch out for.

This in itself would have a whole new set of questions raised. Payment gateways, fulfillment, jurisdictions in the immediate, and broader potential questions of taxes, levies, unified currencies in the future.

Point C is, of course, a Facebook-centered look at the future of social, but one which is entirely plausible over the next decade. Whether it is Facebook or another firm that does it, it seems for now that the winds of culture are blowing this way.