New Facebook Groups Encourage Private Interactions

Facebook launched a new groups product today at an event at its Palo Alto, Calif. headquarters. CEO Mark Zuckerberg called groups “a fundamental building block” and “the biggest problem in social networking,” and said after considering the issue for a long time, Facebook has determined the best solution is a social one, where users organically create and participate in groups with each other as a fundamental part of their Facebook experience.

While the issue of what information to share with whom is often viewed as a privacy concern, Zuckerberg contended it’s more complicated than that. Sometimes you just don’t want to bug the wrong people by saying something that only a few other people would be interested in. Facebook’s goals for groups are to map out all real-world groups, make it so everyone participates, and to make it useful in lots of contexts, he said. He compared the new groups approach to photos, where a minority of Facebook users upload photos, but 95 percent of them are tagged in one.

With Groups, one person’s interaction with the product affects everyone else’s experience of it, and the design is personalized to become a space for that particular group of people, said Facebook director of product Chris Cox.

For all the high-falutin’ theory, when you come down to the actual Groups product, it probably has the most features in common with something like Yahoo Groups. The new Facebook Groups allows users to create groups that are managed by all members, hold group chats, edit a wiki, and send emails to the list (group email addresses are first-come, first-serve), said product manager Justin Shaffer, who joined the company when it recently acquired his startup Hot Potato. Groups are defaulted to private, but there are also options for open and “secret” groups.

Asked whether activity on Groups would take away from the interactions that happen today on users’ profile pages, Zuckerberg contended that group participation would be “additive,” opening up new communication and collaboration that didn’t happen on Facebook before. Without having used Groups yet myself, I would have to say I’m skeptical that will be the case. I think I’d be likely to share with a smaller audience now that I have an option, and neglect more public sharing.

Previously Facebook had a tool called friend lists, launched in 2008, that despite heavy promotion only was used by 5 percent of users. Friend lists have no “virality or social dynamics,” whereas activity in the new groups will spread organically, Zuckerberg said.

Zuckerberg said the company also experimented with algorithmic solutions to understand which friends and information users care about the most. But when the system gets things wrong — for instance, considering a carpenter you’ve been emailing daily as your close friend, or showing you that you care most about an ex-boyfriend that you obsessively look up on Facebook — it can be catastrophically bad, Zuckerberg said. An algorithmic approach works for news feeds and chat friend lists, on Facebook, but not for groups of friends, Zuckerberg said.

[inline-pro-content]An old Facebook product, which was also called Groups — which had been a sort of early version of the company’s Pages product for brands and celebrities — will remain, but users won’t be able to create additional groups.

Facebook also introduced a new tool to allow users to download and port their information, and built a dashboard where users can see exactly what personal data any applications they are using have accessed.

Download Your Data

Zuckerberg described the personal data backup tool as part of the company’s efforts to make Facebook a social platform for the web, on the level of the PC or mobile. Open Source Product Manager David Recordon described Download Your Data as a user tool rather than a developer tool. Rather than posting status messages and photos and using them in the context of the moment on Facebook, users will now get a zip file archive of all their profile information, friend list, wall archive, photos, videos and more. They can open the file and look through the archive in a browser window.

“Download Your Data” is starting to roll out today. Zuckerberg described the tool as an extension of Facebook Connect, which is used on more than 1 million sites, but rather than bringing the Facebook experience around the web, now users will be able to take their Facebook experience offline.

Applications You Use

The new “Applications You Use” dashboard is yet another one of Facebook’s privacy management tools. It extends the initial dialog window that users see after they elect to use an application. So now users can check in on those permissions as well as the actual data that applications are using.

The three launches came at the end of the company’s two-month-long self-imposed “lockdown” period where employees worked overtime to finish a set of products including Facebook Places, an interface for viewing higher resolution photos and a revised platform for games.

As an update on those launches and tweaks, Zuckerberg contended that Places is already the largest location-based app of its kind, even though it’s only available on the iPhone (where the bulk of use happens, he said) and mobile web. He said Photos is at least five times bigger than any other photo site and Facebook Chat, despite some stability issues, is the third-largest chat network in the world.

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my bio.

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