ghost_woman

Finding something on Facebook used to be a lesson in futility and frustration. The company says that the average user can encounter 1,500 “stories” each day — that’s a lot of likes, status updates, and other mundanities to sift through.

This cacophony was comforting. When everyone catalogues their lives with the same fervor as a star-struck paparazzo, it’s easy for embarrassing stories to be lost in a flash of selfies and thinly-veiled attention seeking. And then Facebook unveiled Graph Search, a tool that allows users to search their friends’ photos, likes, and — thanks to Monday’s update — status updates and comments with ease. Hiding in plain sight is no longer an option.

Many will appreciate the change, especially when Graph Search finally comes to smartphones. I’ve watched my fiancée scroll through weeks or months of someone’s stories in search of a funny image or ridiculous status update, and I doubt she’s the only Facebook user to do so. Graph Search could make the hunt a little easier.

Others will worry even more about what they might have shared in the past. Any decent paparazzo will catch his subject doing something unseemly, and Facebook users are some of the best around. Embarrassing images, discussions of illicit activities, tongue-in-cheek comments — all can be found via Graph Search by parents, future employers, prospective colleges, and anyone else in a position of power. (I’ve written before that Graph Search is the closest many civilians will come to understanding just how much private companies and government agencies alike know about them.)

It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that many of those concerned by Facebook’s efforts to make previously obscure information easily accessible are using other, more ephemeral services like Snapchat, Frankly, or any of the delete-my-tweet services that have been cropping up. A status update can now be found years after it’s first shared — an image shared via Snapchat disappears in just a few seconds. Which could prove to be more damaging?

“People expect that not everything you say is meant for posterity. It’s not meant for public record. It’s not meant for you to revisit every day for the rest of your life and live on some server for perpetuity,” says Frankly CEO Steve Chung.

Chung isn’t alone in his thinking: the state of California recently passed a so-called “eraser bill” meant to help teenagers scrub away the things they’ve shared to Facebook and other social networks. The law isn’t perfect, but it’s a clear sign that people are beginning to take the effects an easily-searched, permanent social network can have on someone’s life.

The European Commission proposed a similar law last year that would allow people to tell any website to permanently delete data associated with them. The law, which was labeled a threat to freedom of speech, proposed that people have a “right to be forgotten” and that they should be able to control their online presence.

Facebook seems to have taken a different tack. Though it allows its users to delete the things they share on its service or fiddle with its arcane privacy settings to control who can view the things they share, its recent efforts are dismissive of anyone thinking that they should be forgotten. Most everything they share on Facebook is now easily searchable.

It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since something was shared. Facebook never forgets. Graph Search is simply the clearest proof of that concept yet.

[Image courtesy BPAL Icon Collection]