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Why Facebook's New Search Is Going To Make You Squirm

The first awkward Graph Search outing happened during Facebook's presentation. Why expectations of privacy matter.

Posted on January 15, 2013, at 4:23 p.m. ET

Vikas Vadlapatla is single. He specifies this on his public Facebook page. Nonetheless, he was surprised to see his name pop up during Facebook's Graph Search demo, when Facebook's Tom Stocky searched for single Indian men in San Francisco.

I got featured in the Facebook keynote today for the search term, "single male in SF from India." Thanks for looking out for me,Facebook! :)

I got featured in the Facebook keynote today for the search term, "single male in SF from India." Thanks for looking out for me,Facebook! :)-- Vikas

This is not how I expected to be featured on TechCrunch, but here it is!

This is not how I expected to be featured on TechCrunch, but here it is! Vikas

This, Facebook says, is how it will take on sites like OKCupid and Match. (It made similar claims about LinkedIn.)

It's also the next way Facebook will creep you out.

Valdapata obviously took this in stride, but the fact remains that Graph Search, as it was described today, will surprise a lot of people. And people dont like to be surprised by companies that possess as much private information as Facebook does.

Mark Zuckerberg stressed repeatedly that Graph Search won't surface any information that isn't technically already public, according to Facebook's privacy settings. But what it will do is make information much more accessible — to a point that will make some people uncomfortable. To see Vikas's relationship status today, you would have to first go to his page, then click his "About" tab. In other words, you would need to be specifically seeking information about him. That's not only the context in which such information can be found; it's the context which Vikas expected it to be available when he decided to post it.

With Graph Search, information that used to exist within a user's page now exists outside it, in any number of search queries. It's no less "private," to use the very strict, Facebookian definition of the world. But it's far more accessible, and much more visible. The information's place in the world, the way in which people can find it, has changed. Making data searchable fundamentally changes what kind of data it is.

Google and Bing honor "nofollow" and "noindex" tags on sites, which site operators can place on pages they don't want to be discoverable in search engines. Facebook offers no such option, as of now. To keep information out of Graph Search, you'll basically need to make it totally private, or remove it entirely. Your Graph Search privacy settings are not distinct from your regular Facebook privacy settings:

View this video on YouTube

Facebook users understand there's a big difference between answering people who ask if you're single and broadcasting the fact to everyone you now. And so does Facebook. Graph Search willfully ignores the distinction, because that's what makes it effective — and what makes it, and the things it will find, feel new.

But it's also going to force some users to once again question how much information they've posted on the site. (And to Instagram, photos and location data from which Facebook says will eventually be added to the search index.) Given that Graph Search depends on users posting lots and lots of information, this could become a problem.

Thanks to Carl Franzen for initially retweeting Vikas.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.