Love & Sex

How Facebook Graph Search Didn’t Revolutionize My Sex Life

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There were 1.1 billion people to choose from, but the filters couldn't lead me to a date.

If you speak US English, you now have even more access to a one-billion-person-wide dating market—ostensibly. On Monday, Facebook opened up Graph Search to many more users and with new probing filters to search for people you might not even know, people are asking: Is this Facebook’s maiden voyage towards becoming a dating networking site?

By having access to a plethora of strangers’ meta-data, including pictures, favorites, and check-ins, the world might feel a little bit smaller, like we have a lot more in common than we ever knew. With a personalized way to find exactly who you want to, some media outlets have heralded Facebook Graph Search as a potential contender in online dating services. The thought being, why let personality tests and algorithms and a shallow pool determine who you should be with when Facebook has been fastidiously compiling personal data about 1.11 billion people since 2004? That’s the reasoning Tom Stocky, Facebook Product Director, makes when he noted the power Facebook Graph Search might have on the online dating market. "For single people, friends of friends tend to be a good start," Stocky said. The point is intriguing, but do people want to meet friends of friends offline and can it really weed through people accurately enough to become common practice?

Tom Scott, creator of the hilarious and viral Tumblr, “Actual Facebook Graph Searches”, told me in an email interview that he doesn’t think Graph Search has much potential for a viable and well-used dating service. Scott was wary initially on a practical level. He mentioned how Facebook silently pushes messages from non-friends into a weakly highlighted “Other” inbox, meaning we might not even be aware of messages from new dates. The other and much more potent complaint would be that Facebook isn’t perceived as that type of platform. Cold messaging and cold friending are still just that: cold, sparse, and abrupt. Facebook, while always a place to get suggestive “pokes” and receive private messages inviting you out for tacos, has never really ever wanted to become a dating site.

Mark Zuckerberg was steadfast about that point from the beginning, making sure to leave Facebook with as much ambiguity and anonymity as you pleased. The majority of people don’t sign up for Facebook to date; they sign up to connect with people they already know and like. I asked Scott if Graph Search can cast a huge net because people have unwittingly been “opted-in” to Graph Search by staying a member. He replied, “Facebook isn't perceived as a dating site: no-one's "opted in" to dating, so those notes would surely just be seen as creepy messages from strangers. But who knows?” As of now, there’s still that very real implication that runs through a person’s head when receiving unsolicited messages and friend requests: “Hey, I don’t know you,” “I didn’t invite this,” and “You might be a spammer.”

It’s best not to knock something before you try it, so I decided to set up my own science experiment. If I could cherry-pick who I met on Facebook, not through their names, but through their interests and experiences, would I find people who I’d be attracted to? I started typing in my “dream man” formulas into Graph Search (or just arbitrary, fun searches) to see if Facebook could be a worthy matchmaker. The results were simultaneously inspiring, hilarious, and depressing.

 

Search 1: The Broad Search

Result: This search criteria garnered by far the largest amount of results. Some of the results were oddly personal, too. For that, credit is due. Thousands of men are single in Brooklyn; who to begin with? What's funniest (maybe helpful or annoying, respectively), about this search is that it shows you your own friends first in the searches. Of the top five results, I had some connection to all of them: a past lover, an old coworker, a friend of an ex, a person I once asked out, and a person who once asked me out. Below them was a vast sea of strangers (though, the feature lists friends of friends first.) For someone as picky as me, this filter was too weak. Not enough personality was on display. I will say, though, that this search retrieved the people who I found most physically attractive (hello, beautiful freelance photographer and expressive bearded Venezuelan man). I viewed their profiles until I was discouraged and fatigued by the wealth of data.

Search 2: The Pleaser Search

Result: I call this search "The Pleaser" because my criteria was this: Approve of me, my work, and comfort me. The subject in question had to like some of my friends, had to like chocolate (a given), and had to be down with my current job. Most writers, especially on the internet, share the vulnerability that a lot of their thoughts are public and people who they date might not like 'em. The result: one measly person. Then I looked closely. Wait, this person seems, quite frankly, amazing. They have a really interesting, creative-based career, know my acquaintance, dig David Byrne, Chocolate, The Beatles, Luna, AND Nerve?! No, he wasn't my type physically, but the further complication with "The Pleaser" was that it was too good to be true. He wasn't listed as in a relationship, but he so was. The last five profile pictures he had taken with the same woman were proof enough. In this case, being ultra discerning and demanding was misleading, and unfortunately, inaccurate. (On further inspection, he liked Eminem. Bullet dodged.)

 

Search 3: The Career Search

Result: Next, I decided to judge people by their careers and one generic determinant, to narrow the search. It's not my credo, but for the sake of the experiment, I searched for a similar-minded individual. Only five men are single, writers, and like ice cream in Brooklyn, says Facebook. Of those five individuals not one was remotely my type or someone who I would normally approach at a bar. Two took selfies that turned me off, while the other three (and this icks me out to type) looked under 20-years-old, some middle school aged. That "ice cream" filter might have been a little creepy, but I figured it was safe since I have "liked" ice cream and am a seemingly well-mannered adult. Vague job listings don't make a person, and as I discovered, might be the least compelling Graph Search criteria.

Search 4: The "Is this too random?" Search

Result: Yes, this is too random. I wanted to test if Facebook gave me back results dependent on my sexual orientation wih a broad but connoted filter like "rainbows". With a shocking over 1,000 results, the random "city and rainbows and things people I like like" search isn't the most discerning thing you could type into Graph Search. I just wanted to test the elasticity of the search engine. How weird can it get? Experimenters like Tom Scott prove it could get very weird while still retaining a large result. Most of these search results were, as expected, people who I had nothing much in common with. They might have been in my "network", shared a vague interest, but one thing Facebook didn't work out was picking between the language of someone "from" a city versus "lives in" a city. Being quirky and vague in Graph Search serves up just what you would expect. If you're looking for someone to date, specificity and detail is the way to go.

 

Search 5: The Ultimate Dream Man Search

Result: I decided to aim for something quite specific and fool-proof. Two filters that don't necessarily intersect but aren't diametrically opposed. What better than the meeting between two very beautiful things: Louis CK and vegetable juicing. Sadly, only three single men from Brooklyn publicly partake in such delights. Thinking these men might share my nuanced view of the world, I took a closer look at their profiles. Bachelor #1's most recent status is, "drunk as fuck," which didn't share the poignance or gravity I've come to expect from a Louie fan. Bachelor #2, while recently "liking" Metamucil, which tickled my fancy, didn't seem to have any photographs of himself. That's a little uncomfortable. He seemed private; he wasn't someone you blind message. Bachlelor #3 turned out to be an aging musician in New Orleans (that "Brooklyn" filter wasn't exacting enough). On inspection, he had witty status updates, great taste in TV…and children. This dream search was okay. It collected parts of people that I might want to be with, but since it wasn't a collection of people seeking dates specifically, it didn't amount to much. All I had were pieces of people I perceived to enjoy. It was probably the most rewarding search, though. Also, the funny part of Graph Search is the "Extend this search" tab you always see in the right corner, which allows you to add new filters that Facebook guesses you might want to add based upon your current ones. Naturally, it asks if I want to add liking Christopher Walken to my search. (Perhaps Christopher Walken was the missing ingredient in all these fruitless searches.)

 

What I concluded from my one-hour tour of the Graph Search was that it definitely wasn't fool-proof and it didn't seem like it would take away anything from the already booming online dating market (at least not yet, anyway). One pitfall might be that not everyone who is on Facebook who we might actually want to meet is broadcasting their “likes”, check-ins, or relationship statuses. When you search for a “single man,” you are, in fact, only checking for people who have specified that they are single, which leads me to realize it’s still hugely limiting. I checked my Facebook relationship status (I am currently single, in real life), and realized that I don’t have a Facebook relationship status. I wouldn’t come up on a search for “Single women in Brooklyn who like artichokes and dancing and Kurt Vonnegut”—though I certainly am that woman if you meet me. Graph Search seems like an interesting, playful new rake to comb through faces with, but it’s not a catch-all and it certainly won’t reign on as large a scope as execs might have projected, especially if you have scrupulous privacy settings. And doubly so if you don’t take kindly to being approached by strangers both at the bar and in your inbox. 

The other alarming realization I had during my searches was that I am sure many people enjoy things, activities, and places without clicking “Like” and without ever speaking about it on social media. I certainly do—so do my friends. The challenge to Facebook data is that it doesn’t exactly “one-up” any dating site already out there. The Graph Search is still an analysis of data, not people. While the advantage of the Graph Search might be how expansive and discerning it is because it involves a population who didn’t know they were sharing their information for the select purposes of dating, I will say…it felt a bit wrong to nit-pick people I didn't even know existed. Cold messaging someone felt even more wrong. Graph Search might not take off as a dating platform because even if we see people that pique our interest, we might be reluctant to message them because they haven't consented to that specifically. Selection is simple, after a few hours, but feasibility and acceptability doesn't seem likely. "Seeking" or "not seeking" buttons would diminish that fear, but they're not an option.

Facebook Graph Search, though initially setting off all my creep-factor red alarm bells, does, in fact, have the potentiality of connecting me with people I should know or maybe wouldn't be opposed to knowing, whether that's in a purely friendship, career, or romantic capacity, I don't know yet. In a few years we might remember Graph Search as innocuous and seldom-used as the poke, or it could become the most comprehensive dating search engine in history. For now, it will remain a toy for the curious and the stalkers.