One of the most commented news around the blogosphere this week was the launch of the new Facebook Groups, a reboot of the original groups product with a number of new features, some of which have been criticized. I have been playing with the product for a few days and I have to say this is going to be one of the most used features of Facebook.
Easy to understand, easy to use
My first experience with Facebook Groups was via an invitation I received from Nathan Chase to join the FriendFeed group. I had not heard anything about the new Facebook Groups but immediately grasped the concept. At first glance, some people compared it to FriendFeed, but I quickly dismissed the comparison. FriendFeed is an aggregator, Facebook Groups is a realtime group forum. This might seem like a small difference, but think about it: most people don’t produce feeds, but people do produce tons of content and Groups is a perfect and easy way to share this content with a targeted slice of your social graph.
One of the detractions that some bloggers have pointed out about Groups is the fact that you can be automatically added by a friend to a group without your permission. Facebook’s response makes all the sense in the world:
The functionality of approving a group membership is not available. Similar to being tagged in a photo, you can only be added to a group by one of your friends. When a friend adds you to a group, a story in the group (and in News Feed for Open or Closed groups) will indicate that your friend has added you to a group.
If you have friends that add you to unwanted Groups, it’s very easy to unsubscribe, and you won’t be added again unless you expressly request to be added. And seriously, if you have friends that want to add you in a Group that completely disgusts you, why are they your friends in the first place?
Also a great aspect of Groups is that it behaves as a mailing list. Again, this makes it easy for regular people to participate anytime and anywhere by creating a special email associated with the Group. You can even reply back to an email and that becomes a comment to the post. This feature, even though been called “spammy” makes total sense to me.
A needed filter for the social graph
In an interview with GigaOm, Zuckerberg mentions the thinking behind Groups:
I think right now there just aren’t the tools that give people the opportunity to express themselves in the ways that they want. If you get married, you want to tell all your friends and this isn’t going to take away from that. But a lot of people just don’t want to bother all their friends about something, or don’t think something is suitable for all of them, so then they just wouldn’t share it at all. But now with Groups they’ll be able to. So I think it will be additive. If anything it might take away from other email lists that people have. I remember when I was in college, the clubs I was a member of had email lists, and within companies people use them, but outside of companies I’m not sure people use email lists.
Between the lines, Zuckerberg is acknowledging the failure of Facebook Lists, a feature that according to him is used only by five percent of its users. Lists allowed you to create subdivisions of your friends, and it allowed you post to those lists specifically, as well as see content posted by those friends. Last week my wife asked me, after me insisting to her several times to create lists, that she finally wanted to create a list for her Spanish speaking friends, so she could avoid annoying her English speaking friends with posts they didn’t understand.
I think lists will still make sense for this capability of targeting posts, but Groups now takes this concept to a new level: turning the list concept public, and hopefully attracting enough of your friends to maintain and grow it.
The other problem Facebook is now facing is the fact that people are now following hundreds of people, missing important posts from friends or family that were really important. Louis Gray posted back in November how he missed his sister’s first baby announcement on Facebook:
How could I have missed it, considering they had been updating Facebook regularly, and amassing a good share of comments and likes with each update? Well, apparently, Facebook didn’t figure out that this update stream was relevant to me. It didn’t realize and start sending – with alarm bells – that Louis’s sister was having a baby.
I have lived this situation over and over, and I created my first Facebook Group for my immediate family. So far my Dad, my Mom and two of my brothers and sisters-in-law have regularly posted for the past three days, sharing photos and videos of my nephews and nieces. I now have an instant notification when they post something on the Group module of the left hand navigation rail.
It’s realtime, baby
Facebook Groups also exposes a dedicated chat room for the Group, which is perfect for realtime interactions with Group members. Posts and comments also appear in realtime, which mimics the FriendFeed experience, and could become a really interesting experience for active Groups or when important news break, for example, in my family (Louis Gray would have loved this). As a matter of fact it’s one of the things that most of my non-technical friends ask me about Twitter — why aren’t tweets displayed in realtime?
Exposed via an API
Facebook has also announced the inclusion of Groups on the Social Graph API, which could lead to some exciting applications built on top of this functionality. Even though the announcement centers on its usability on games, I could see groups being used on other areas, like corporate information exchange or other associations.
In summary, I think Facebook Groups is yet another great step to solidify their leadership in the social arena.