Feb 222013

NEW YORK — Oh, the things you learn on Facebook’s new search engine! Among them: that the hardware chain Home Depot wins the top ranking among employers of people who “like” sadomasochism; that a lot of people are not embarrassed to profess a “like” of Hitler, but only nine of them reside in Germany, including one man with an apparently Muslim name who claims to work for NASA; and that abortion is prominently labeled a disease, and more than 6,000 people “like” it anyway.

You learn that some women call themselves the wives of men who call themselves single. That either a lot of people from conservative, non-English-speaking societies want the world to know they’re bisexual, or they don’t share Facebook’s definition of being “interested” in people. That there is support for democracy in North Korea, but, on Facebook at least, it comes from one man. And that, yes, there are people from Chengdu, China, now living in central Iowa, and, yes, four of them are single.

Facebook’s new tool is called Graph Search. Imagine the ferocious analytical horsepower of Google applied to Facebook’s data: your pictures; likes and dislikes; when and where you were born; where you were educated; where you work; your religion, sexual orientation and political views — though the engine searches only those things that you have chosen to make public (or, more to the point with Facebook, neglected to make private). The new tool is being rolled out slowly; after signing up some weeks ago, I recently gained access.

Even at its most basic, Graph Search changes the kind of thing that Facebook is. It converts it from a virtual coffeehouse, where you come to hang out with people you know, into a zone of discovery. For the first time, the vast universe of your nonfriends feels as real and accessible and interesting as your little galaxy of friends.

Graph Search can find you the Goldman Sachs employee (and, mind you, there is no fact-checking on Facebook, so these are self-authored identities) who likes the drinking game beer pong or who is in an open relationship. It can lead you to restaurants in South Africa favored by those who also like Amman and Dallas. It can, if this is your thing, show you pictures of Christians taken at the beach.

Playing around with the tool, what becomes clear is that many people have not factored an extraordinary, appetitive and curious search engine into their decisions about what to confess to Facebook. As Graph Search is more widely disseminated, a number of people may be stunned to learn how they can be found, as a man named Tom Scott argued last month in a Tumblr he created called “Actual Facebook Graph Searches,” which received considerable attention.

The new tool makes it easy, for example, to find the names of people who live in Utah, “like” polygamy and are married. It’s equally painless to find people living in Cuba who are fans of capitalism and Milton Friedman himself. It empowers officials in Uganda and Iran, where homosexuality is illegal, to look up which of their citizens are “interested in” members of the same sex. As Mr. Scott has pointed out, the tool would be very helpful to a Chinese official looking for family members of residents who “like” the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong.

These may seem like extreme cases. The perils for ordinary, uncontroversial people, though different, remain real. The discourse about privacy tends to assume that some things require sacred protection and other things are better disclosed than not. But much of the information circulating about you online is in an in-between category: obscure. Graph Search makes the obscure nonobscure, which is why the Web site GigaOM, after playing with the tool, quickly declared “the end of privacy by obscurity.”

If Graph Search changes anything about how we live, it may be that it decisively shifts the burden of privacy onto you. It is now your duty to opt out of being discovered.

And yet the creepiness of Graph Search is matched by a less-heralded loveliness. It offers reminders, search after search, of how marvelously complicated this little planet can be. If our politics often devolve into black-and-white struggles, Facebook reveals that most of us live in the grays.

In digital life, as in life itself, people are multiple — and yet, on the Internet, there may be less pressure to flatten multiplicity than there is at work or at home. You needn’t just be a mom, or a human-resources person, or a Parisian. Graph Search points to a world in which you can be a Muslim and like the Web series “Old Jews Telling Jokes.” Or work for an American university in Bangladesh and like the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar. You can be Brazilian and like Argentina. You can admire Al Qaeda in Iraq and the rapper Eminem. You can be a gay Mormon. You can support abortion and still think that it’s murder.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, stop reading and get thee to your Facebook settings — before your Facebook settings get you.

Join an online conversation at http://anand.ly and follow on Twitter.com/anandwrites

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