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Anti-Social Search

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Nick de la Mare, Frog Design.
Nick de la Mare, Frog Design.
Before we get started, I have three confessions:

First, I'm not on Facebook. As the social cost of not being part of that community becomes higher and higher, I struggle to recall why I'm not on board. Second, much of my understanding of what people are doing when I'm not with them comes from my wife and friends who filter events and track each others' lives through Facebook and then pass the relevant morsels over to me in the real world to digest. Third, I'm completely intrigued by the concept of social search, and the inclusion of the Aardvark social search engine into the huge Facebook network is enough to make me reconsider my anti-Facebook stance. I'm almost inclined to sign up just to start asking questions and see what I get back.

For those unfamiliar, Aardvark is a social search service that aims to leverage the wisdom of connected groups—a user can ask a question of their Facebook friends and get, presumably, relevant answers because they share location, interest, careers, and a variety of other things that made them a network in the first place. As the Aardvark blog says:

"Consider this: I have about 200 friends on Facebook, and they each have about 200 friends. Altogether I have over 10,000 friends and friends-of-friends in my extended network. These 10,000 people have a lot in common with me: many share my school and work affiliations and my cultural reference points. I'm interested in the choices they make and the experiences they have — they are usually more relevant to me than the opinions expressed by anonymous strangers on the web."

I certainly want to tap the wisdom of my foodie friends, find the best bike shops, events to attend and movies to see. And I can easily see the benefit of asking friends for help versus endlessly trawling the internet for answers, only to wonder if the answers I get are ones that I trust to be correct. As the Aardvark blog points out in a roundabout way, the tricky thing is subjectivity: "Social Search is especially great for subjective questions, and questions where context is important to getting the information I want." Social Search is also "complementary to Web Search, which is still great for objective information that can be found on a specific web page."

We all rely on specific people for information on certain topics; I have go-to friends I ask for restaurant or cooking advice, cycling friends who share my passion for not being treated like dirt in bike shops, others who share my taste in music and still others who like the movies I do. Unfortunately, I've learned from painful experience that people I trust in one area are not necessarily the best judges of my taste in others.

Aardvark tries to get around this issue of subjectivity by qualifying the answerers via their profiles, allowing users to ask questions "through instant messaging or email and the service will get to work searching your contacts and their contacts depending on their qualification to answer said question. The qualification is determined based on their profiles, which list their expertise and the likes." In a sense, by relying on a system of self-administered expertise, Aardvark is trying to make their subjective answers as objective and "true" as possible.

So what happens to people like me when search becomes social? To start with, I'll not have access to the scale of Facebook's proposed social search network. But I'm not convinced that the kind of answers I need are best handled on this kind of platform anyway. I know that a lot of the subjective questions I ask of others are more conversational and require more depth than a simple comment exchange offers. There's also a high probability that a small number of people will bear the weight of a large amount of the information sharing. Few of us are willing to devote large amounts of time answering questions that don't provide us any benefit; those that are will become hubs of knowledge and miniature Wiki's, their online behaviors shifting from social equal to information dispensary. Will the answers that I glean from real-life queries become more privileged precisely because they are out-of-network?

Here's a test for the theory of social search: What do you think?

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Nick de la Mare, a Creative Director at frog design San Francisco, has spent his career designing digital, physical and experiential systems.
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