Don't Tell Mark

By Schlinkert, Sam | Newsweek, January 25, 2013 | Go to article overview

Don't Tell Mark


Schlinkert, Sam, Newsweek


Byline: Sam Schlinkert

The man behind Google Maps and the Facebook search engine on the pleasure of not knowing his way.

You may not know who Lars Rasmussen is. But chances are, more than once he helped get you where you were going. That's because Rasmussen, along with his brother, invented what is now Google Maps. He then developed Google Wave--an online collaboration tool meant to replace email that flopped--before leaving Google for Facebook.

Eight years after the launch of Google Maps, Rasmussen is once again out to change how we find things. On Jan. 15, the 44-year-old Dane joined Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to present the company's latest, and likely most radical tool--the inelegantly named Graph Search that allows users to search the 1 trillion connections between Facebook's 1 billion users. A few days after the announcement, which sparked excitement, curiosity, and privacy concerns, Newsweek spoke to Rasmussen about how you build a product "the Facebook way," about what a toothache can teach you, and what not to tell "Zuck."

How will it change the way we use Facebook?

Mark described Graph Search as a third pillar of [Facebook], where the two existing pillars are News Feed and Timeline. So you can look at it like this: News Feed is the daily answer to the question "what's going in the world?" Timeline is the answer to the question "what's up with this one particular person?" And then this new pillar is "ask us any question you want."

Back in the early days, before search really worked, the Web was still supremely useful. But when companies started making search work, the usefulness just grew dramatically. We're hoping that, by adding a very useful search mechanism to Facebook, we'll see the same effect.

One of the demos I did was I searched for dentists my friends like. This is actually a true story: I had a toothache and I needed a dentist because I'm relatively new to the area, and I found a really good one by just looking at what dentists my friends liked in the area. When I had that really nice experience at the dentist, I felt a couple of things: grateful toward the friends who shared that they liked that dentist, and the urge to go and share with my friends what things I like.

So it's almost contagious?

Yeah, exactly ... another thing I felt was grateful to the dentist that she had given me this experience, and I wanted to help her succeed in her business, so that was another reason I went and clicked that "like" button.

What's it like to build something like this at Facebook?

A couple of months after I started at Facebook, Mark took me for a walk--Mark likes taking people for a walk--and he explained how important he thought it could be ... if we really made search work on Facebook. As you can tell from the things I've worked on in the past, I like working on reasonably ambitious and somewhat risky things. And so I thought it was cool.

He argued that, primarily, the Web is a very large collection of documents, and so keyword searches are appropriate for that. But the data that people share on Facebook has a lot more structure to it. Mark wanted to be able to ask more structured queries, like "What restaurants do my friends like?" or "What Indian restaurants do my Indian friends like?" which is a query that you can't really express in keywords--you really need some other mechanism than keywords to express it.

You once said that with Google Wave you wanted to recreate the atmosphere of a startup. …

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