Facebook announced a new platform for Facebook Groups recently. Rather than jump into the fray to share my immediate reactions, I opted to instead allow the news and its promise settle.
Like many, my initial reaction was that of disappointment. After all, I was almost immediately bombarded with emails notifying me that I was added to groups where I did not request nor authorize membership. Plus, I was subsequently hammered with email updates as new group members added their commentary to the various group walls.
But was this Facebook’s fault or the fault of trigger happy enthusiasts?
Indeed, Facebook was forcing us to opt-out rather than opt-in. While many expressed otherwise, what was clear, is that this move is exactly what Facebook intended. In order to grow Facebook adoption and incite deeper engagement with the platform, it would have to further push us outside of our comfort zones. And, that’s the point. If Facebook waited for us to adopt new features, its rate of growth and new adoption would lose inertia. In a world where our attention is captivated by all things real-time, Facebook as a business and as an platform would become vulnerable.
Zuckerberg was clear. He put the power of group creation and member curation in the hands of the individual. Without doing so, Groups would not realize its full potential.
As Zuckerberg explained, “You try to make it as easy as possible and give people control. It’s very easy to turn a group off. Also there’s really this self-selection. You’ll interact with groups that have a lot of interaction within them. Whereas a group like that, maybe it’ll grow, but then what. If you have a group for your family, your roommates, your classmates or something that’s actually useful. The product is designed so that the groups you actually use go to the top of the home page. The other ones will just fall away. “
The idea of self-selection is almost precipitated by a sense of selection. In many cases, we are chosen for groups and similarly, we choose certain individuals for the groups we create. As in anything, this must be done with discretion. And if we’ve learned anything over the years with email lists, many individuals prefer to opt-in to communication. To help prevent Groups and their organizers from eliciting a form of chaos theory, some very interesting measures were introduced.
Yes, you can add someone from your social graph to a Group, but if that person leaves the group, you lose the ability to automatically add that person back. Consider a personal invitation to join instead. As I’ve always expressed, “With social media, comes great responsibility.”
Per Matt Hicks at Facebook in response to this post…
Once you leave a group, you can’t be added again by anyone to that specific group. This doesn’t change what your friend can or can’t do with regard to other groups. What’s most important are the social norms around inviting friends to Groups that you point out in your post. Although people don’t lose the ability to add friends to other groups, they need to consider the impact that adding a friend will have on that person.
Just because we have the ability to invite people into Groups or to check them into Places, we have to consider the social costs of doing so.
What is the impact of this action on my relationship with this individual?
Does adding them to this Group or checking them into this location hurt or help the stature and value of my position?
As an online society of social denizens, we typically underestimate the potential of social networking and the economy that governs it. Social capital is more valuable than we realize and the currency that determines its net worth is represented by our individual social actions and how they accumulate in the short and long term.
This is your time to define who you are and the value you behold…
Groups Usher an Era of Social Nicheworks
The most interesting aspect of social networks as they exist today is that they’re structured around you. As such, the infrastructure that supports your social graph places your updates and activity at the center of your social graph. While you’re given elementary controls to select who sees what, the majority of status updates are published for everyone. As you and I know, that’s simply not at all how human interaction works in the real world.
The real life social network is designed to facilitate the creation and cultivation of discreet social graphs. The people who populate each and also what we say and do is different across each group.
Paul Adams works on the UX team at Google. He recently gave a presentation (slides here) that discussed the idea of contextual networking, which actually led to the speculation of whether or not we were getting a glimpse of Google’s rumored social network, Google Me.
His presentation is the result of years of research in how people network online and offline. And, it demonstrates the need for us to intentionally channel our activity in its most favorable directions.
The example he shared was that of a user named “Debbie.” Here are some of his slides and experiences…
Debbie is still connected to a group of friends she made when she lived in Los Angeles.
She now also maintains a network of new friends in San Diego, where she currently lives, in the same social graph.
Of course, she is still in contact with her family.
Debbie is also an active swimmer and trains ten year old kids in competitive swimming. She has friended other trainers and some of the kids in her class.
In L.A., some of Debbie’s friends work in a gay bar. They share photos on Facebook of wild and memorable nights in the bar.
Debbie loves the pictures and often comments on them.
By nature of design, the 10 year old kids that have friended Debbie can also see her activity as well as the pictures she’s commented on.
Debbie realized, for the first time, that the kids could see this activity and she was upset at herself for not realizing this earlier. She blamed the system for letting it happen.
As Paul observed, the problem isn’t Facebook. The problem is that one social network does not represent how we “network” in real life and exposes discreet groups to one another intentionally or unintentionally.
In reality, we do not have one group of friends. Nor should we have only one social graph. We maintain networks of friends, peers, associates, family and each are governed by varying levels of interest, themes, intimacy, and expectations.
According to Paul’s work at Google, people tend to have between 4 and 6 real life groups.
And each of those groups tends to have between 2 and 10 people.
In social networking, the patterns appear to be very similar. While social networks such as Facebook and Twitter make it easier to connect, we still maintain relationships (strong ties) and also “relations” (weak ties). What’s changing, is the abundance of weak ties, driven by context and interest. This is also a reflection of the intermingling of our personal and professional contacts.
According to Paul, a study of 3,000 randomly chose Americans showed that we maintained just four strong times. Many held between two to six.
A separate study of 1,178 adults found that on average, people maintained regular contact with 10 friends on a weekly basis.
On Facebook, the average size of the social graph is 130. Studies show that the vast majority of Facebook users interact regularly with 4 to 6 people.
As the size of social graphs increases, we’re introduced to the idea of temporary ties. We’re introduced to these fleeting relationships through projects, events, or other circumstances where communication results, but usually dissipates for various reasons.
Facebook Groups gives us the ability to create nicheworks for the different audiences with which we’d like to communicate. And in many cases, other participants require the same group to collaborate.
As such, privacy is now a process of boundary management. It is in our control to define how much other people know about us, what they see, and the impressions they form.
Nicheworking with a Purpose
In 2007, I advised and helped launch a company focused on productivity and collaboration, but rather than focus on threads, it designed projects around transforming social networks. The company was later acquired and shuttered – within its first year of operation. The reason I share this story with you is that it was very similar to how the new Facebook Groups approaches networking and collaboration.
Facebook Groups represents something much more meaningful than groups for idle chatter; they are platform for improving relationships, communication, and productivity in controlled environments.
When starting a group or project, you choose who you would like to invite and as such, create a dedicated social network (or a nichework) to host undistracted interaction.
In the past, Facebook has attempted to introduce what it referred to as “naive solutions” to facilitate social nicheworking. With the introduction of lists, according to Zuckerberg, less than 5 percent of users took advantage of this option. Groups reduces the barrier to entry and it keeps interaction and engagement focused on short term and long term tasks with those who define strong, weak or temporary ties and the degree of relationships we maintain around the different groups we host online and offline.
Groups represents the future of social networking. We can design groups where we communicate, collaborate, and co-create with purpose, whether it’s personally or professionally. But, for the time being, we can do so in a network we can learn, in real-time, how to take control of our online presence and the social graphs we choose to cultivate.