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Meta's AI search is weird and uncanny and I'm not sure who it's for

Katie Notopoulos   

Meta's AI search is weird and uncanny — and I'm not sure who it's for
  • Facebook and Instagram now have Llama 3 integrated into their search fields.
  • This is confusing. We're used to using the search bar for looking up people, groups, or tags.

Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram have integrated Meta AI into the search fields of their mobile apps. And it's getting weird.

The search bar in the Facebook and Instagram apps is one place you probably know very well. You've searched plenty of things there —the names of people you went to high school with, a local business whose page you want to find, a celebrity whose latest controversial post everyone is talking about.

We all know what to expect in the search bar of Facebook and Instagram: You find things — people, pages, groups, tags, locations — that already exist on Facebook and Instagram.

What you are not expecting is an artificial-intelligence chatbot interface that can do any number of things completely unrelated to Instagram or Facebook: generate an image for you, answer questions, give advice about things, etc.

This creates a really odd situation. You come to the Facebook search bar to type in the name of your local Buy Nothing group, but instead, you see an animated blue circle with "Ask Meta AI anything."


This intrusion into the sacred space of the search bar isn't the only thing Meta is doing with AI that feels a little off.

Fast Company describes how it feels like AI has made Meta's apps "unusable," with the proliferation of clickbait-y AI images like shrimp Jesus or a creepy comment in a parents' group from the Meta AI bot saying it had a gifted and disabled child.

What makes the "Ask Meta AI anything" prompt in the search tab even stranger is the list of suggestions it gives you for searches. Meta wisely realized that most humans would be somewhat baffled by an AI chatbot — most people have never even knowingly interacted with AI. Pew reported that as of March, only 23% of US adults had tried ChatGPT, and 34% had never even heard of it.

So there are a ton of suggestions for what to search or ask for. And these suggestions are, I guess, fine? But they make me feel like I've been living in some saccharine alternate-reality bubble where everyone is focused on their unproblematic hobbies. Here are a few of my top suggestions:

  • Landscaping 101.

  • Dog breed recs for me.

  • Eco DIY home decor ideas.

  • ️ Tips to roam a new city.

  • Top ocean docs.

  • Can you sleep in space?

These are all fine. Pleasant. A mix of helpful, curious facts and fun things. (There are a few suggestions, like "Imagine a 70s living room," that lead to image generation.)

But, like ... Facebook. You know me. Come on, it's me, Katie! We've been together for, what, 15 years? I've given you so much data. You know I don't want to roam new cities or learn about eco-DIY home decor. I'm a garbage gremlin who logged onto Facebook eight times today to do the same gremlin stuff I've been doing for years. I'm not suddenly interested in improving myself! I don't want to know about space! I want to know what people are complaining about in my neighborhood group, and I want to shop for used furniture on Marketplace, and I want to feel bad when I'm done.

This arrangement has satisfied and nourished my spirit for years — and I've been a loyal user. Now you think I want to do landscaping??? I'm hurt.

A representative for Meta told me that these suggestions could change based on popular searches. That might explain at least one surprising search suggestion I got: "Rick Lax net worth." (Rick Lax is a magician behind a lot of Facebook viral content and largely popular only ON Facebook.)

On Instagram, the search suggestions are slightly more Instagram-y, like "5 tips for glowing skin," "Cheerleading reels," and "Write a spring fashion guide." The request for cheerleading reels does lead to a suggestion of a bunch of other reels.

I asked the Meta AI whether there was a difference between the AI used for Facebook and Instagram, and it told me, "While the core LLaMA 3 model remains the same, its applications and fine-tuning differ on Instagram and Facebook to cater to each platform's unique requirements and user experiences." A representative for Meta told me that this wasn't exactly true — a standard case of an AI hallucination.

For me, what feels strangest isn't whether Llama 3 is "good" at answering these queries — or noticeably better or worse than any competing AI. It works, but the best things going for it are that it's fast with its output, it's free, and it's right there in an app I already use a lot.

And if Meta's goal here is to get people's feet wet with the idea of using generative AI — without having to download a different app or think up ideas of what to ask it — well, mission accomplished.

It's part of Meta's push into an AI arms race, and one where it's well equipped with more compute power. Meta also has an edge when it comes to getting its large language model into the hands of as many users as possible to try it out: It has a lot of humans who open its apps every day and search stuff in the search bar.

So, yes, jamming Meta AI into the search bar feels really weird and confusing, but Meta isn't shy about muscling new features on users — even if they complain — to get the new feature adopted by a critical mass of users (cough reels cough).

But for we gremlins who are used to searching for old flames, new acquaintances, celebrities, and embarrassing other things in the Instagram search bar, this is certainly a strange new world.

Update: May 1, 2024 — This story has been updated with a comment from Meta.

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