Could Facebook Groups change social networking forever?

6 Oct 2010

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Facebook has launched a new Groups feature that allows its 500 million members to create groups around anything of relevance, from football clubs and hobbies to spheres of influence and intimate and secret cliques. Is this really the big announcement everyone’s been waiting for?

For one thing, it will certainly be useful at filtering out the general noise that comes with social networks.

With the new Groups function, users can create spaces where groups of friends, colleagues, fellow hobbyists or just about anyone interested in a specific subject or issue can gather.

Each Group will be gathered and maintained by its members and the new function comes with a Group chat function that allows members to engage in instant messaging.

Most view Groups will start appearing automatically in the left-hand navigation pane of your Facebook page.

To top it off, Facebook has also created a new social graph API that will result in extending your Groups to the wider web.

Context, context, context

The key message here is context. After all, unlike the mad hoi-poloi that can be places like Twitter, this returns context to the original framework that is Facebook. You may have 300 or 600 friends, but who are the ones who really know you or fit into specific relationships based on politics, hobbies or career?

Context, in my opinion, was the glue that made Facebook stickier than Twitter and could be seen as the start of an offensive on professional social networks like Xing or LinkedIn, which are no doubt about the context of career.

Perhaps the wide appeal of Facebook was getting to its CEO Mark Zuckerberg, et al, in terms of how distinctly uncomfortable ex-Bebo users might be about their parents being on the same network?

One "group" that will definitely love this new feature will be advertisers, because after all, what greater gathering of "tribes" than that of voluntary groups united around ideas, feelings, hobbies, etc.

Then again, what if this, too, becomes unwieldy?

What if you end up with as many Groups as friends? Well, that may be unlikely, but it strikes me as a return to the basics for Facebook.

The question now is privacy. Again, you may share something within a Group but what if information leaks from that Group by virtue of a "Like" or someone sharing information irresponsibly?

Either of these things will come to haunt Facebook or it may add structure to the glue that is the social network of choice for about one-third of today’s internet population.

My gut feeling is this is a step in the right direction, especially towards eradicating people’s fears about privacy.

Another mixed feeling I have is a new Data Portability feature that allows you to download all your content and data into a single Zip file.

This is both revolutionary and bothersome. What if – like many have discovered to their peril and chagrin – you forgot to log out of Facebook and all your data was grabbed or misused for nefarious purposes?

These questions and more will no doubt come to haunt Facebook in the weeks and months to come. But I’m sure they’ve anticipated all these questions …

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com