Thursday, October 14, 2010

Facebook Group: Will It Catch On?

As I discussed last week, last Wednesday Facebook announced their new Facebook Group feature along with other privacy enhancements (allowing Facebook data to be downloaded as archive file and dashboard to view history of authorized application access to personal data). While I was reading a few Facebook Group discussions on the web, there were many opinions as to whether this Facebook Group feature will catch on or not.

I have spared myself from having a preconception before I try Facebook Groups myself, and I now can say I have a few opinions of my own after test driving Facebook Groups on my account.

Create Group Right
From Home Page
As Easy As Sending Group Mail

As discussed, the central piece of Facebook Group is user experience (UX). Facebook has all the reasons to make group creation and participation as easy as it can possibly be. It has to be easy enough for Mom to understand and start using. Unless it garners wide adoption among 500 million and growing users, the effort can undermine the user sharing. In particular users can start using number of other social network sites for each context, such as Evite for invitation, LinkedIn for professional contacts, and so on.

Creating a group is a breeze. There is a prominently displayed option 'Create Group' that pops up create group window. It is as easy as typing in whatever group name you want, and providing list of members you want to invite from your friend list. Even when you type a incorrect friend's name Facebook silently ignores and happily creates a new group for you. Facebook has done the right thing to make it was as easy as possible for users to start experimenting with Facebook Group.

Visual Cue To User -- It's Private

Once group is created you are immediately led to newly created group page. At first it looks little empty, but as soon as first few posts are made, it started to look a lot like anyone's Wall page.

Privacy Setting Is Displayed For Each Group Update
On Home News Feed
One thing that most users will discover once they started to post messages is that they now start showing up on your Home News Feed (the first Facebook page you see when you log in). Notice how small padlock is displayed next to update, however. If you hover your mouse over, it shows the update is only shared amongst members of the group.

In case you didn't realize, Facebook has defaulted the group setting to be 'closed', which means all contents of the groups will be visible only to members -- when creating a group, it gives you an option to change this setting; also when you go back to group, you can change this to either 'open' or 'secret'.

You've just witnessed the Facebook's solution to privacy settings. Instead of having blanket privacy settings, Facebook is suggesting that we create appropriate groups and share private contents using closed or secret groups -- if you create 'secret' group, updates as well as group membership is invisible from outside, where as 'closed' group reveals membership info to non-members.

This is Facebook's answer to representing context and places. You can create a group for family, another for school friends, and yet another for your co-workers, and start sharing relevant updates on each group page. Even though you'll see all these aggregated updates from three groups on your Home News Feed, your classmate won't be able to see family conversation or chat among your coworkers. That's what Facebook is aiming for.

Alert: You've Got Member Update;
Get On To Group Page Now!
Instant Message Like Alert

Facebook didn't stop there. They introduced alert popup when a member updates group post in lower left corner. It's designed to alert you at the moment when a group member make an update on the group. Why? Because when both parties are available, people can interact in real-time.

Have you ever had an experience where all your friends are online at the same time, and comments grew from 0 to 10 just in a matter of few minutes? That real-time interaction is what Facebook is after. It lets you know that other group member is ready to interact, and Facebook is treating it specially to make sure you are aware of it if your eyes are on Facebook page.

Comment Behaves Like Chat Too
Long Running Comments Will Be
More Common With Facebook Group

If you look at comment option of post on group page, this becomes more obvious. There is no 'Comment' button. When you type a comment in a group page, key becomes 'Comment' button. Facebook wants us to interact with users with short sentences in real-time. When you are commenting from group page, you almost get the real-time group chat experience. That's because you are not switching to your mouse to look for 'Comment' button to send your comment.

But there is also another wishful reason on Facebook's part. Facebook wants substantive comment, one that needs multiple paragraphs, to be created as separate post. Facebook cares about this because more interesting posts are made, members will feel group is worth joining and spending time on, instead of declining the invite from early-adopter among your friends.

Remember that Facebook is relying on small percentage of active users to create groups initially -- Mark Zuckerberg estimates about 5% of total users. Once group is created, in order to sustain the group members have to contribute meaningful posts to keep members interested in the group. By restricting members from adding verbose comment -- note that multi-paragraph comment is still possible from Home news feed probably for consistency reason --, Facebook's wish is that people to create more contents, and use comments as semi-real-time message exchange medium.

But Will It Catch On?

After going through new Facebook Group, I think Facebook has gotten most of user experience right to have successful initial adoption amongst loyalists. Ease of creating a group, real-time alert of group updates, and clear indication of group privacy setting will do a lot to appease users who have been clamoring for contextual sharing and enhanced privacy control.

I am cautiously optimistic that Facebook Group will catch on. My primary concern is whether Facebook has just become too big to be small again. When I hear Facebook, I'm immediately thinking of party scene in huge convention hall where your childhood friends to your boss are all there somewhere. It's public plaza where anyone can find anyone else, and it's great for that purpose.

But if you are thinking of having small intimate gathering, you won't probably pick this convention hall as the meeting venue. Of course cyberspace is not limited by spatial constraints. You can have perfectly private cyber partition where data privacy is guaranteed and free of outside hustle and bustle. But people might not redefine Facebook to be smaller in their mind. Given all the smaller context-specific social network sites, such as LinkedIn, Quora, Hi5, Tagged, and so on, people might be happy to use different social network to take on different persona.

It's also worth noting that most Facebook users are not keen on experimenting, and using Facebook to mostly for personal connections.

I think Facebook's main challenge is to attract loyalists to create enough relevant groups and hope that lots of quality contents are shared through groups. 
It's a tall order indeed. Especially when challengers like Quora is taking many high-value members' time away from Facebook.


  1. I think Facebook should have spent a lot more time talking to veteran runners of message boards and email lists. Their almost total lack of understanding of the needs of group discussion is underlined by their removal of the comment button. Substantive, long posts that kick off a discussion are often met with substantive, long replies. If the replies have to posted in a new "thread," the discussion becomes disorganized, confusing, duplicative, annoying, all of which discourages participation.


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