Facebook Groups: Privacy Blunder or Twitter Replacement

Facebook rolled out a comprehensive upgrade to its Groups feature on Wednesday, but judging by some of the responses from both high-profile users and regular Facebook fans, the ability to “tag” anyone and add them to a group automatically is not winning the company much support. For some, this feature appears to be another example of Facebook’s preference for automatically opting people in to new services by default and forcing them to opt out, as it did with the recently launched Facebook Places. Others, however, greeted the new Groups with open arms and said the new features might even replace Twitter for some of their conversations — words that will probably be music to CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s ears.

One of the more vocal opponents of the new Groups feature is entrepreneur Jason Calacanis, founder and CEO of Mahalo, who published an email he wrote to Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg about being auto-added to a group called NAMBLA (the North American Man-Boy Love Association). According to Calacanis, he was never asked to join the group, and was not informed that he was “force-joined” to the group. He closed the email by saying: “If you guys want to run these new features by me before you launch them, I can probably save you from a couple of privacy law suits each year.”

Anil Dash, founder of Expert Labs, said Thursday morning on Twitter: “Oh, Facebook. I wanted to like groups, but now I’m on 50 unwanted email lists. More incompetent defaults, or an attempt to undermine email?” Others complained about a deluge of auto-add emails from Facebook Groups, including Daniel Victor, the online community manager a community host for TED.com TBD.com, who said Thursday: “I’d rather be invited than added to a group on Facebook. Woke up with 45 unexpected e-mail notifications today. Spammer’s dream.” Among those who also weren’t impressed with the rollout were technology blogger Dwight Silverman and Socialtext co-founder Adina Levin, who said that the current implementation of the Groups feature “has some serious social design flaws.”.

Laura Fitton, co-founder of the Twitter app directory oneforty.com, asked on Twitter “Did Facebook simply “forget” 15 years of email list best practices? ie, email lists should be opt in, not opt out?” while others wondered whether the new groups would simply wind up creating more cliques and exclusion.

As for Facebook’s perspective on the changes, Liz asked Mark Zuckerberg about the auto-adding feature during her interview with the CEO on Wednesday, and he said the idea was to “make it as easy as possible” and to encourage “self-selection” — suggesting that groups which might try to trick you into joining would not prosper. He and Groups manager Justin Shaffer (who joined Facebook via the recent acquisition of his company Hot Potato) also noted that you can turn groups off; you can leave a group with a single click; and once you leave a group, you can’t be re-added to it without your permission.

Despite the criticisms, however, there were some fans who seemed to take to the new Facebook Groups features fairly quickly, and several who said that they could see using the new service more than Twitter in some cases. Journalism professor Jen Lee Reeves wrote a blog post describing how the new implementation of Groups seems more “alive” than it did before, and added that while she used to use Twitter for such conversations, “this changes it all.” Francine Hardaway of Stealth Partners, meanwhile, said Thursday morning on Twitter that Groups had produced an “amazing transformation” and that “in one day, all the action in my “intellectual” life switched from Twitter to FB groups.”

That kind of comment is likely to be exactly what Zuckerberg wants to hear, as Facebook continues to build what it hopes will be the one social network to rule them all.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Christian Scholz