With Graph Search, Facebook is becoming a modern-day AOL

facebook graph search
Mark Zuckerberg called Graph Search "a completely new way for people to get information on Facebook."

Facebook has a mind-blowing amount of useful information sitting on its servers -- 500 terabytes of new data every day, at last count -- but until now it lacked an efficient way for any one person to take advantage of it. So it created "Graph Search," which will allow all of us to pillage our friends' status updates, interests, photos and general Facebook activity.

The possibilities of Graph Search are sprawling and ambitious. As the company says, it wants to provide answers, not links to answers. If you want to know what music or TV shows certain friends are into (or vice versa), you'll be able to find out (and so will they). If you're trying to suss out a consensus on a potential dinner destination, the hive mind of Facebook could help you out. And if you're uninterested in using OK Cupid for your online dating needs, you can stalk away on Facebook to find all your friends' single friends (at your own peril).

But for all the vast possibilities of Graph Search, it boils down to something simple and profound: Facebook finally has a search technology that works.

Up until now, trying to search for anything that wasn't a friend or business quickly became an exercise in futility. To say it's dysfunctional would be a generous compliment. Graph Search is a direct solution to that problem.

And because of that, Facebook (FB) has just taken one big step closer to becoming what America Online used to be: an all-inclusive Internet experience. (Minus the dial-up service and monthly fee, of course.) It's an isolated island of content walled off from the rest of the online realm.

The similarities between the two companies have been pointed out before, and a return to this model of the Internet isn't quite as regressive as it may seem. Once upon a time, in an effort to make the chaos of the Web palatable to the uninitiated, AOL (AOL) offered up a singular Internet shard with a consistent look and feel.

Many more of us are now well-versed in the ways of the Internet, but the sheer volume of information available has become overwhelming. Social networks thrive, in many ways, as filters. You tell the network what and who you like, and it gives you the information you want.

The arrival of Graph Search doesn't mean that Facebook instantly transformed into its own self-sustaining network, or that it will do so anytime soon. It merely put the first pieces in place for people to get everything they need out of the Internet without ever setting foot outside Facebook's domain.

Facebook cashes in on 1 billion users
Facebook cashes in on 1 billion users

Search is what made Google (GOOG) a worldwide juggernaut. Search (for anything you want to buy) is what made Amazon (AMZN) the de facto marketplace of the Internet. And search is what could ultimately turn Facebook into an Internet sandbox whose bounds people are happy to remain within.

Most of the other required pieces are in place. Even if they're incomplete and underutilized, Facebook has the framework for communication, media sharing, news distribution, commerce, entertainment and app development. Graph Search could someday tie all these services and utilities together.

Imagine a future Facebook that serves as a single destination for planning a trip. Its graph will tell you where the most popular hotels and destinations are in any given city. You'd have user-submitted photos and videos at your disposal to get the lay of the land. Then you could hypothetically buy plane tickets, book hotels, and anything else you'd need from within the network.

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Of course, such an idea hinges on how much of their life people choose to share on Facebook. There's growing user skepticism about what Facebook does with all the data we give it, but we're still throwing a ton of information its way: The site sucks in around 300 million photos and 2.7 billion likes every single day.

If Facebook can maintain that level of human participation, there's a lot of power in building a web within a web. Billions of humans pumping curated data into Facebook has to scare the hell out of companies like as Google, which builds all its services around the collection and interpretation of mass data. (Its human layer, Google+, seems stillborn.)

Google has to task algorithms with figuring out the patterns in all that data. Facebook has a head start, because we connect all the dots ourselves: It knows who we are, where we're from, what we like, when we were born and who we talk to each day.

Graph Search may seem like an incremental and nebulous update. For the time being, it is. But the opportunity exists for Facebook to operate as independent but extremely influential bubble inside the Internet at large.

The question is, would an AOL-like presence on the Internet today be more of a guiding light, or confining prison cell?

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