Facebook Graph Search: The Emperor Needs New Digital Clothes

While I very much welcome the discovery nature of Facebook’s Graph Search, in concept, at a very personal level I think we need to approach it with concern about what it can index about us.

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Facebook's Graph Search feature uses natural-language search queries.

I have to admit that I’m not much into clothes. Give me some comfortable jeans and a clean shirt and I’m ready to go. My better half has a different position on this topic. Sometimes she takes 30 minutes or more just to decide what to wear. Apparently this gene is being passed down to my granddaughters who, when over at our house, also spend more time than I think necessary to get ready to go out the door — even if we’re just going to a movie theater where it’s dark the whole time. But I am beginning to think that when it comes to a digital world, I may need to be more cognizant of my digital clothing.

Most of us know the children’s fable, The Emperor’s New Clothes. The synopsis, per Wikipedia:

A vain Emperor who cares for nothing except wearing and displaying clothes hires two swindlers who promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or “hopelessly stupid”. The Emperor’s ministers cannot see the clothing themselves, but pretend that they can for fear of appearing unfit for their positions and the Emperor does the same. Finally the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor marches in procession before his subjects. The townsfolk play along with the pretense not wanting to appear unfit for their positions or stupid. Then a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but continues the procession.

One could also interpret this fable as being about keeping the status quo around you and not seeing that things in your world may be wrong or have changed. I believe that if this fable were written today, it might be titled The Emperor Needs New Digital Clothes, especially if he had a Facebook account.

A few years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who had gone to a data conference and said one panelist had used the term “digital clothing” to define the way people digitally wrap their online personas around their identities. Some of us already use our personal resumes to do this, posting them on sites like LinkedIn and others that might help our chances for finding a new job or network better. In my case, my resume is on our company web site and because I speak in public and I am involved with various events and conferences, my resume pops up in various locations. I try and keep it up to date, but it is highly tuned to a business profile, not a personal one.

This digital clothing idea popped into my mind during the launch of Facebook’s new Graph Search feature. The new search engine indexes things like people, things, places, dates, photos, Likes and other data related to a person’s Facebook profile, which they can access and assimilate around related queries. Today I give little thought to what I actually put on Facebook since most of what I do post is very straightforward and uncontroversial. If I do Like something, it is generally something affirmative or positive. Because I travel a lot, I always check in from the location I’m visiting, more for my memory’s sake than for alerting my friends to where I am. In other words, most of what I post is pretty boring.

(MORE: How Facebook’s Graph Search Works)

However, I see a lot of posts from friends and associates that are all over the map. Some updates make political statements, some are even snarky at times, some are quite simple, and those around family are often especially heartwarming. Some posts can be heartbreaking, too, as many feel comfortable using this forum to announce results of a doctor’s test to ask for prayers and support. At a personal level, I had a triple bypass last June and during the first weeks home, I was very discouraged. Comments from my Facebook friends during this difficult time were most welcome and contributed greatly to my recovery.

Facebook’s new Graph Search has the potential for helping us access a lot more specific information related to all of our friends’ posts. One can ask “Who has gone to London lately?” and use the results to get help planning an upcoming trip there. Or more specifically, “Which of my friends have gone to London and like fish and chips?” Or if you feel like watching a romantic comedy you could ask Facebook to show you “new romantic comedies that your friends like.”

I think that from now on, Facebook users might want to seriously think about cloaking themselves in digital clothing that makes them more presentable to a Facebook audience that can soon search for anything they post or say about themselves. That could mean being more selective about Liking other users’ comments. It could mean gussying up your profile. More importantly, a user may want to tighten up their Facebook security settings and sort through what things they want indexed and shared versus things that they really want to keep personal or among friends.

While I very much welcome the discovery nature of Facebook’s Graph Search, in concept, at a very personal level I think we need to approach it with concern about what it can already index from our past and what it will index in our future. While I am pretty sure most of what I have posted is rather tame by comparison, I can’t remember everything I have said on Facebook over the years that could come back to haunt me. I think users need to be much more aware of what we say, Like or post, knowing full well that it could be part of an answer to someone else’s search query in the future. Consider how you want to be digitally clothed, as your Facebook world just became much more open and connected.

MORE: I Might Be Too Old for Facebook Graph Search

Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every Monday on TIME Tech.