Earlier this week Facebook announced the revamp of Facebook Groups. At first I planned to avoid commenting on this release since there is significant overlap between it’s functionality and that of Windows Live Groups so it is hard for me to have an objective perspective. However this morning I saw the following tweet from a designer at Facebook
I found this a little intriguing since I was sure I'd seen the presentation from the Google UX researcher he was referencing and I couldn't see how Facebook Groups addresses the problem he pointed out. If you haven't seen the presentation there is a brief description and link to it in the VentureBeat article Google researcher says friend groups may give it a window to best Facebook. Below are key excerpts from the article which capture the key point from the presentation
Through studying the nuances of social interaction both off- and online, Google researchers found that people typically have between four and six friend groups and only between two and six “close” friends, he said. College friends don’t necessarily mix with work friends, who don’t necessarily mix with a person’s family.
Adams pointed out all of the different problem scenarios Facebook users run into if the different parts of their identities end up blurring. One teacher the company interviewed, for example, realized that photos of her with her close friends at a gay bar were being exposed to her 10-year-old students.
Personally, I’d always assumed this collision of friend groups would be the main challenge that would prevent Facebook from being as successful as it could be back in 2008. What I didn’t expect is that people would decide that the benefit of having access to all their friends in one place was worth the cost of having to censor themselves a little bit in their online sharing since what may be appropriate for one group of friends (e.g. your friends from the gay bar scene) may not be for another (e.g. parents of students in your middle school class). Today has grown to having 500 million users based on that fact.
The reasons for self-censorship are sometimes not so controversial. Simply posting a bunch of kid pictures can get annoying for your coworkers even though your family on Facebook loves every single one of them. For the people who find this need to censor how they share online for various reasons, the argument is that Facebook Groups solves this problem. There’s only one catch which Mark Zuckerburg brought up himself a while ago which is mentioned in the TechCrunch article Facebook Overhauls Groups, A Social Solution To Create “A Pristine Graph”
“The naive solution is to do something like Friend Lists,” Zuckerberg says. ”Almost no one wants to make lists,” he continues. He’s noted this before. “The most we’ve ever gotten is 5 percent of people to make a list. It’s pretty brutal to have to do this every single time.” He then went into the algorithmic solutions. These are helpful, Zuckerberg says, but it’s also really easy to get these wrong, he notes. There needs to be a social solution, Zuckerberg says.
Facebook Groups faces all the problems with Friend Lists that Zuckerburg mentions above. In real life, I don’t manage my different social circles at the same time. I go to work and have work friends, I have school friends I still call every once in a while and when I go to my regular poker game there I interact with my poker friends. Every once in a blue moon like at my wedding, all of these worlds collide and it is actually a little stressful to manage them in real time. In addition, when the members of these groups change I don’t have to actively manage them (i.e. when a coworker becomes friendly enough for me to hang out with them outside of work, when a poker friend stops attending the regular poker game or when a coworker switches jobs and we no longer work on related technologies). Friend Lists on Facebook make people work to keep track of changes in their social relationships which is just not how most humans work. I still have phone numbers in my cell phone for people who I was supposed to meet up with for dinner at a conference almost four years ago who’ve since left Microsoft.
Facebook Groups cranks the awkwardness of dealing with this up to 11. Let’s say I create a group for “People who work on social at Microsoft who regularly have lunch” and after a few months to years some of these people leave the company, get promoted or switch roles. As the owner of the group what do I do? Do I kick them out? Do I keep blathering on in private discussions that I know are no longer relevant for half of the recipients and in some cases actually violates work ethics since some of these people have left the company? What happens when I stop working on social at Microsoft?
Facebook Groups may solve some problems users have with Facebook but I suspect it is not the silver bullet that addresses the problem of people having friend groups that they’d like to keep separate on Facebook especially since it introduces a new set of problems for users. Time will tell if I’m right or wrong on this suspicion.
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