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Data Mining and Facebook Graph Search

Random Number Multiples - RGBIf you haven’t fled Facebook for Google+ or abandoned social networks entirely, you probably–like me–have a lot invested in the platform. A new feature is in beta on Facebook: Graph Search. If you get through the waiting list to try it out, you’ll find lots of options for targeted searches centered on your social network. Graph search works by linking together terms and restrictions to allow for very specific searches within the network: you can look for images from friends based on a common location or subject, or find everyone in your social network who went to the same university and are fans of Glee. Is it useful? The possibilities for networking–from finding local friends who share a passion for running to gathering info on a potential new campus to making connections at a company–are immediately clear. But it’s also a powerful (and perhaps alarming) data mining tool that puts front and center just how much data some of us have committed to this social network already.

Those with access to the new search mechanism have already created a stir with sites such as Tom Scott’s “Actual Facebook Graph Searches,” which includes several juxtapositions of targeted search queries that could reveal everything from personally embarrassing information to illegal acts within certain countries. Of course, targeted Google searches (as Amy reminds us) or just a quick browse of an ill-considered profile can be equally as revealing, but there’s an alarming efficiency to this new method of data-mining within the social network. The availability of all this data is definitely going to lead to some tense Institutional Review Board debates, as it offers an easy way for all of us to see some of the incredible marketing and interest data that Facebook has been amassing on its users. It could certainly be a fertile ground for social research–but are all Facebook users really clear on how much information they’re sharing?

The introduction of Graph Search makes this an important time to revisit privacy settings: EFF has broken down some of the new implications. Check out Brian’s essential steps to checking Facebook privacy to get started. Searches through images can be particularly hard to control, as it pulls images from everyone’s albums and your friends might not have the same standards for privacy as you do. This next iteration of social search is also another opportunity to talk with students about their digital identities and privacy choices. I’ll definitely be taking a look at its ramifications in my digital communication learning community course this semester, as it shows how easy it is to pull personal information out of the noise of social media.

Have you tried Facebook Graph Search? What do you think of this new development for Facebook? Please let us know in the comments.

[CC BY 2.0 Photo by Flickr User Jer Thorp]

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