Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Facebook Graph Search as a Journalistic Tool

Facebook is becoming an ever-powerful stalking tool. The social network now associates users with not just profiles stating some facts about their status and interests, but also, among other things, with photographs, location check-ins, games, and "pages" corresponding to businesses, brands, and celebrities. Until recently, however, the only way to thoroughly stalk someone was to manually comb accessible photos, locations, and pages.

Then came Facebook Graph Search. Graph Search allows users to search Facebook data to which they have access. Not only is it now easy to find which friends, friend of friends, and friends of friends of friends live in each city in the world, but we can find out who is tagged in photos with whom, who has been to what location with whom, and what pages our friends are liking. Anything that gets posted can now be scrutinized by those with permissions to access.

Facebook has posited that this is potentially a useful tool for journalists. For the final project of the News and Participatory Media class I am taking at the MIT Media Lab, I decided to investigate this claim. As part of this endeavor, I wrote According to Graph Search: 36 Hours in Portland, Oregon, a travel piece written without much prior knowledge of the destination and researched solely using Facebook Graph Search.

In this post, I describe how Facebook could be useful for writing about lifestyle and recreation. I also discuss why Facebook and Graph Search may need to undergo some changes for it to be useful for topics with more political and policy implications.

What can I do with Facebook Graph Search?
Facebook Graph Search allows users to programmatically access information about data that other users have posted socially. The interface currently allows users to search photos, tagged people and locations, and pages that users have "liked." Example searches include:
  • Games that my friend play.
  • Restaurants in Cambridge, Massachusetts that people I work with visited.
  • Photos of Democrats and Republicans.
  • Friends of my friends of friends who live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
This search capabilities allows users to search the activities of a specific person or the people associated with specific photos, locations, etc. Graph search allows me to discover that my friend Jane has been at the Grand Canyon either by searching Jane or the Grand Canyon.

Graph search currently only supports search over explicitly labeled data: user tags, location tags, and page tags. Thus it does not support search over status updates and "likes" of status updates. This is not a fundamental limitation of graph search: being able to search the contents of posts would require graph search to work on a much larger scale. Adding hashtags would allow users to be able to search based on dynamically generated labels. Supporting search over the content of posts would require crawling over post data in real time. This is at the cutting edge of search technology and probably more than we can expect from Facebook at this point.

There have been some concerns about Graph Search and privacy. Privacy by obscurity is no longer possible: users can no longer hide behind how difficult it is for other users to access information. Graph Search guarantees that searches will only search over what a user is allowed to see. Users are now allowed to see more information than was previously convenient to browse. For instance, a user can "hide" a photo in which they are tagged from their timeline, but it is possible for Graph Search to make this photo available to those with permissions to see the tags. Previously, a user would have had to go to the profile of the user posting the photo in order to discover it. While these problems are not fundamental privacy issues, we increasingly rely on Facebook to support and correctly enforce palatable policies on what data other users can search.

How useful is Graph Search for journalism right now?
Facebook Graph Search allows people to easily search people who may have useful information about an event or location. For instance, "People who have been to the Boston Marathon Finish Line." These searches can also be narrowed: "People I work with who have been to the Boston Marathon Finish Line." There is also potentially useful timestamp information, as users can see when a photograph or check-in happened. It is also helpful that Facebook users tend to list some basic demographic information publicly, for instance name, gender, and current city. Many users also publicly list educational and/or work information.

Graph Search provides a nice first pass for writing about locations and people. Facebook has "pages" that are essentially profiles for celebrities, businesses, brands, and other non-persons. Pages can be tagged in photographs and check-ins. Pages report the number of users that "like" the page, that have "checked in" to the location corresponding to the page, and that are currently "talking about" the page--either through a check-in, on the page's "timeline," or in a tag. Facebook also supports star rating and reviews for pages corresponding to businesses. These reviews tend to be much shorter than Yelp reviews, making it possible to get a wider range of opinions. The flip side of this democratization is that there is less filtering.

There are some open issues with using Graph Search for journalism. One obstacle is verification: determining the veracity of tags and identities. It also remains unclear what barriers privacy settings might impose on using Graph Search for journalistic purposes. Journalists using Graph Search must be careful to account for the fact that the cross-section of location, photo, and "like" data is skewed based both on who is sharing information: people in their social networks and also people sharing information publicly. It seems, however, that there is always such a bias in journalism.

Facebook and Graph Search are currently not well-suited for reporting on topics outside of lifestyle and recreation. For breaking news, people do not seem to post as much news on Facebook as on Twitter and there is currently no way to search by topic. Ever since Facebook allowed "public" posts, there is more information publicly available, so these seem to be more incidental issues. A major issue that remains, however, is the linking of user identity with posts. It is one thing to associate restaurant reviews with your identity, but for many, especially those in countries with more restrictive governments, it is another thing entirely to associate your identity with political opinions. Because it is more difficult to be anonymous on Facebook, Facebook will need to implement additional mechanisms--and ones that people trust--to feel they can share "serious" opinions with relative impunity. What prevents people from posting more political opinion outside of small trusted circles is a more fundamental issue.

On using Graph Search to write a travel piece.
As Facebook and Graph Search currently seem to be best suited for lifestyle pieces, I wrote According to Graph Search: 36 Hours in Portland, Oregon using primarily Graph Search to evaluate it as a journalistic tool. The only other source of information I used was Google Maps for learning about relative locations. I proceeded as follows.
  1. I looked at the results of the query "Photos taken in Portland, Oregon" to see what looked interesting.
  2. I looked at the pages associated with the locations tagged in the photos to learn more.
  3. I queried for restaurants, bars, night clubs, and coffee shops in Portland, Oregon to fill out the rest of the weekend. In selecting which activities to include, I looked at the average star rating assigned by Facebook users, how many "likes" and check-ins the place had, and the general sense I got from reading the description, wall posts, and reviews.
  4. To help order the activities in a sensible manner, I used Google Maps to plot the locations.
  5. To flesh out the article, I returned to the pages corresponding to the businesses and look at the wall posts and reviews for quotes. I also looked at the
  6. Whenever I used a quote, I looked up the profile of the user associated with it to see what other information I could find. Most users had their current city publicly listed. I did not go further to verify these details, but I suspect that reporters do not go much further in cases like this, where identities do not matter as much. 
I was surprised to produce weekend plan that I would be happy following. I was also surprised that so much information about people's opinions of businesses was available to me essentially publicly: I only came across one post from a Facebook "friend" and I did not end up using this information.While it would have been interesting to see what friends post, for journalistic purposes it seems better to search based on the less social aspects of Facebook data. An additional note is that while people made their opinions public, their profiles remained relatively private: I was not even able to see the current city of some of the users.

In comparing to the New York Times's version of 36 Hours in Portland, Oregon, I learned that I had the right idea with many of the activities (beer; karaoke; antiques; nature) but only overlapped with the Times writer Freda Moon on one activity, the Japanese Gardens. Since the "36 Hours" activities are fairly specific and a weekend is a short period of time, the lack of overlap is not surprising. The activities proposed by Moon are arguably more hip and sophisticated, perhaps reflecting the difference between the intended Times audience and the cross-section of population making public posts on Facebook. The curation of the Times is useful: there is less quality control when crowd-sourcing travel advice to Facebook.

In its current state, Facebook Graph Search is better-suited for writing a travel article than Twitter but not obviously better than Yelp or Google Maps/Places. Facebook has an obvious advantage over Twitter because it contains more information about users and links data from users with data about locations and businesses. At present, Facebook's advantage over Yelp or Google is that it lowers the barriers for Internet users to post opinions, thus decreasing the selection bias. Because of the relative youth of these features in Facebook, however, Yelp and Google currently have more reviews.

In the future, I could see Facebook surpassing Yelp or Google to provide more relevant personalized recommendations. It is incredibly powerful to have a system that associates user identities with demographic information with other activities such as "like" and check-in information. In the future, it will be easy to find people according to what they like and where they have been. It will also be easy to figure out what is popular among whom. If we could look at how star rating change based on different interests, locations, and other likes, we can get a precise idea of who is interested in what. This could make it possible to algorithmically generate travel suggestions tailored to the interests of each individual traveler.

A Future with Graph Search
As Graph Search matures, it is exciting to see how it enables journalists to write about people's preferences and opinions. I am curious to see how adding features like search through posts could make it Facebook more useful for reporting breaking news and public opinion on topics outside of lifestyle and recreation. In order to make people feel comfortable posting "serious" opinions on Facebook, however, Facebook will need to think about how to protect people's identities while allowing them to share information credibly.

Despite my affiliation with Facebook as a Facebook Fellow and former intern, the views I express in this post are 1) my own and 2) based solely on publicly available information.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

According to Graph Search: 36 Hours in Portland, Oregon

Photo credits, clockwise from top left: The Portland Japanese Garden Facebook page; Powell's Books Facebook page; Ray's Ragtime Facebook page; LaurelThirst Public House Facebook page; Jesse Cornett via Facebook; Deke Dickerson via Facebook.

I wrote this piece as part of an experiment to see how much I can learn about a city primarily using Facebook Graph Search. I chose Portland because I have never been there, have only a vague idea of what the city is like, and have few Facebook "friends" who post about it.

The goals of this piece are twofold: to produce an act of journalism in the style of the New York Times's 36 Hours series on weekend trips and to evaluate hypotheses about the viability of Facebook Graph Search for journalistic purposes. I wrote this article using leads obtained solely information from using Facebook. I used Google Maps for validating locations and for clustering sighseeing of nearby locations. After each activity, I have a brief note on how I discovered it.

Some questions to think about while reading this piece are as follows. How might my social network be biasing the article? How might the population of active Facebook users be biasing the article? How are these biases different from the usual biases of journalists? What information is missing if we look only on Facebook? For comparison, you may be interested in reading the New York Times's version of 36 Hours in Portland, Oregon.


4 p.m.
Start your weekend at Powell’s City of Books, a popular book store, coffee shop, and tourist attraction liked by 17,204 Facebook users. Over 66,740 Facebook users checked into this book store and 374 are currently "talking about" this "bibliophile's dream." Portland resident John Stephenson says, “I know some folks that should live here simply for this one store.” According to Nicole Bell of Oregon City, “Everything and Anything to read is right at your Fingertips.” Portland State student and National Guard member Bobby N Marci claims this is her favorite place on earth. Those who "like" Powell's also "like" the author Haruki Murakami and advice columnist Dear Sugar from the online literary magazine The Rumpus.

I discovered this by searching "Shopping & Retail places in Portland, Oregon."

7 p.m.
Grab a burger and a beer at the Deschutes Brewery, a Pearl District destination liked by 2,954 Facebook users and visited by 33, 392 users that combines Northwest culture with a Scottish Pub feel. Deschutes has 18 taps featuring, in addition to the mainstays, seasonal and experimental beers developed and brewed on site by Ben Kehs. Vancouver, Washington resident Steven Venetta says this is his "favorite place to go out to eat/drink in Portland." For food, Venetta recommends the elk burger; for beer, he recommends Abyss, Hop Trip, and Green Lakes. Facebook user Charles Replogle raves about the gluten-free menu and reports that there is a "TASTY" gluten-free microbrew on tap.

I discovered this by searching "Restaurants in Portland, Oregon."

10 p.m.
Go for drinks and karaoke Alibi Tiki lounge, liked by 2,109 Facebook users and visited by 14,402 users. According to Los Angeles musician Deke Dickerson, Alibi is a "national landmark" frequented by "young hipsters" that "retains enough local flavor to be the real deal." Locals and tourists alike seem to be enthusiastic about the karaoake and the tiki aspects of this lounge. Cornelius, Oregon resident Geoffrey Waggoner recommends the "Luau Pork Sammich," calling it “orgasmic.” Regulars like to post on the Facebook page when they plan to go for, in the words of Portland resident Jessica Boyd, "sexy singing times."

I discovered this by searching "Photos taken in Portland, Oregon."


10 a.m.
Spend a leisurely few hours at the Portland Saturday Market, liked by 68,158 Facebook users and visited by 53,966 users. In operation since 1974, it is our nation's largest continually operating outdoor arts and crafts market. At the artist's booths, you can not only meet the artists but witness the creation of one-of-a-kind pieces. You can pick up breakfast and lunch from the exotic food offerings while enjoying the live music. Facebook fans rave about everything from the food to the live clothing to how the market is a “great place to take pics.” According to several Facebook fans, this is the one destination they do not miss during visits to Portland. But be careful: Matthew Futrell of South Carolina cautions against “beggars and cigarette bums.”

I discovered this by searching "Photos taken in Portland, Oregon."

2 p.m.
Take a relaxing hour or two to enjoy a stroll through the beautiful hills of the Portland Japanese Garden, liked by 14,776 Facebook users and visited by 25,893 users. The garden has been proclaimed the most authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan. Facebook fans like the "peace" and "perspective" that a walk through the garden provides. Those who like the garden are quite enthusiastic about recommending it to others. Federal Way, Washington resident Lance Ferrell says, "I would make a special trip to Portland just to see this."

I discovered this by searching "Photos taken in Portland, Oregon."

4 p.m.
Grab a snack at Voodoo Donut, a vegetarian and vegan restaurant liked by over 107,000 Facebook users and visited by 141,100. According to US News and Travel, Voodoo is among America's best donuts. Alaska resident Lori Campbell high recommends the maple bacon donut, saying she hand carried it all the way back to Anchorage, Alaska. Brandon Krenzler of Pendleton, Oregon says, "You'll not find doughnuts like this anywhere else" and calls Voodoo a "Keep Portland Weird classic."

I discovered this by searching "Photos taken in Portland, Oregon."

5 p.m.
Take a stroll along the Portland Waterfront and surrounding areas. Watch people play with their dogs in the Waterfront Park, walk by the Portland City Hall, and make your way to Pioneer Courthouse Square, liked by 8.248 Facebook users and visited by 50,512. In this city park there are shops, there is food, and there are people. There are public movie showings. This next month, Weezer is coming for a free concert. According to photographer and Independence, Oregon resident Ryan Zeigler, this is the "REAL center" of Portland.

I discovered this by searching "Photos taken in Portland, Oregon."

8 p.m.
 Rest your feet at Portland's historic non-profit Hollywood Theatre, liked by 5,199 Facebook users and visited by 1,348. According to the Facebook page, it was built in 1926 and has "beer, wine, pizza, and the best popcorn in Portland." It has hosted vaudeville shows, silent films with live orchestration, and more. Facebook fans are enthusiastic about the theater's "personality," its popcorn, and its film selection. Vix Standen of Kingston upon Thames writes, "the hollywood is the best cinema in the entire universe. the staff are beautiful, the 'corn is delicious, the seats are super comfy and, most importantly, the film selection is always rad."

I discovered this by searching "Photos taken in Portland, Oregon."

11 p.m.
Check out local live music at the LaurelThirst Public House, liked by 2,241 Facebook users and visited by 4,463. According to Ben Waterhouse in the 2011 WWeek bar guide, "The leaders of the city's bluegrass, folk, old-time, gypsy jazz and Americana scenes, plus various combinations thereof, can be found every night at this entirely kickass bar. I've never seen a bad show here." According to bar's Facebook page, there is live music every day and twice a day Wednesday through Sunday.

I discovered this by searching "Night clubs in Portland, Oregon."


11 a.m.
Have brunch at Tasty n Sons, liked by 4,236 Facebook users and visited by 20,327. Tasty serves "Toro Bravo style brunch" with a menu that changes based on seasonal variations, local farmers' produce, and the kitchen crew's inspiration. Patrons are excited about, among other things, the bacon-wrapped dates, cauliflower, and lamb sausage. Carl Brochu of Renton, Washington recommends the bloody Mary. Anna Va writes that Tasty served her the "best and most memorable food I've ever had."

I discovered this by searching "Restaurants in Portland, Oregon."

1 p.m.
Relax in Wilamette Park. When you are ready, try stand-up paddle-boarding on the Wilamette River, renting boards at Gorge Performance.

I discovered this by searching "Photos taken in Portland, Oregon" and then trying searches involving "Wilamette."

4 p.m.
Get a cup of coffee at the Coffeehouse Northwest, liked by 567 Facebook users and visited by 1,153. Portland resident Jon Powell admires the “little patterns in the mocha,” saying it is “like a dream.” Portland residents Leah Flores and Michael Jensen say this is their favorite coffee shop in Portland. Nicholas Walton of Corvallis, Oregon comments on the "beautiful space" and "beautiful equipment." Shem Ishler of Minneapolis, Minnesota says the coffee is “the way it was meant to be."

I discovered this by searching "Coffee shops in Portland, Oregon."

5 p.m.
Go vintage shopping at Ray’s Ragtime, a vintage shop featured on LA Frock Star. According to the Facebok page photos, the store features clothing across the decades, jewelry, masks, books, dolls, and other collectible items. Portland resident Victoria Taylor says that this is “one of her favorite all-time stores.”

I discovered this by searching “Photos taken in Portland, Oregon.” 

Have fun! And in case you are curious, I reflect on this experiment using Facebook Graph Search in this post, Facebook Graph Search as a Journalistic Tool.