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Facebook Graph Search: A bit better, a bit scarier — but mostly just different


Facebook's Graph Search, a feature which was announced in January, is finally being rolled out widely. Like most other changes, it has the social network's users nervous. Do you need to be terrified? Do you need to quit Facebook? Here's what you should know.

What is Graph Search?
Let's say you want to know which of your friends knows someone who lives in Berlin, Germany. You can type "friends of my friends who live in Berlin, Germany" into Graph Search. Ta da! You'll have a list of the relevant individuals. Want to know which of your friends enjoyed the "Twilight" series? Type "friends who like Twilight" into Graph Search.

Get the idea?

Graph Search allows you to put together pretty elaborate queries for answers to all sorts of questions. If it floats your boat, you could try something along the lines of "people who live in San Francisco, California and like cats and also like goats and also are software engineers."

Woah! I can easily find people who like embarrassing things!
If I can see information on your Facebook profile, I can find it using Graph Search. This means that if you've shared information publicly, anyone can find it using Graph Search. This includes embarrassing things — like the fact that you ironically "liked" Justin Bieber at some point.

This isn't a reason to panic and throw your laptop out the window though. It just means it's time to tweak your privacy settings.

Quick! Tell me what to lock down!
If I were your mother, I'd probably wag my finger and scold you for not having your Facebook privacy settings adjusted perfectly already. But unless you're my future offspring and have traveled back through time to witness the rollout of Facebook's Graph Search, there's probably no need for that.

Instead, let's talk about the things you need to check on:

  • The past. To limit the visibility of all your old posts in one go, you can go into your privacy settings and click on "Limit Past Posts." Select "Limit Old Posts" and you should be able to make everything that was once public limited to only your friends. Were you tagged in some embarrassing photos? Find the photo, click on the "Report/Remove tag" button, click "Untag Photo."
  • The present. It's a bit tedious, but you should go through your Profile and check on all the little "audience" selectors on various sections. You can limit things like your hometown, Pages you've liked, your alma mater, and so on from the public (and from strangers' Graph Search queries).
  • The future. Be aware of the audience on posts. Are you making something public? Are you limiting it to friends of friends? Also remember that you don't just have to worry about your own posts. If you allow your friends to tag you in photos, those could potentially appear in search results.

Won't someone think of the children?!?
Unsavory characters with not-entirely-acceptable tastes may think of typing queries along the lines of "women under 17 who live near me" into Graph Search. The folks at Facebook anticipated this.

To protect the privacy of users ages of 13 and 17, Facebook keeps certain information — including age and location — from being shared beyond friends of friends. Attempting searches which could produce information related to minors leads to a simple message explaining that Facebook "couldn't find any results for this search." (This is assuming that you're not between the ages of 13 and 17 and have friends or friends of friends who'd match the search query.)

Want more tech news or interesting links? You'll get plenty of both if you keep up with Rosa Golijan, the writer of this post, by following her on Twitter, subscribing to her Facebook posts, or circling her on Google+.