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Facebook's New Groups Demystified: What They Are and How to Use Them

Facebook Groups
Facebook, for many users, has always been something of a digital mosh pit -- an amorphous sphere where friends, family and acquaintances from all corners of our lives converge to form the silky strands of our social webs. Simply browsing through a News Feed, to a certain extent, is like leafing through the pages of a living scrapbook. One minute, you're carefully deciphering your ex-girlfriend's passive-aggressive status update. The next, you're clicking through a bevy of wedding photos recently posted by that quiet guy who sat behind you in algebra class.

With Facebook's new Groups feature, however, that could all change.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled the revamped product last week and proudly declared that the new tool "will change the way you use Facebook and the Web." By now, of course, many observers may have already grown immune to the hyperbolic PR circus surrounding "The Latest Earth Shattering Facebook Feature." (Remember Instant Personalization? Or Open Graph, anyone?) The site's seemingly infinite redesigns and aesthetic tweaks now go unnoticed by the millions of users who've grown accustomed to living with a constantly shifting, perpetually dynamic Facebook.

Facebook Groups, however, isn't your average feature, and it certainly isn't just another redesign. It's an instrument that's been fine-tuned to influence the ways we interact with friends, and even the ways we conceive of online "friendship." With Lists and Pages, "Likes" and Groups, we struggle to decode who means what to us now... or whether we should just disconnect entirely. Like it or not, we'll all be forced to interact with Facebook Groups at some point, so here's a nifty guide to navigating the feature now.

Facebook Groups Explained

Groups Explained
Groups are groups. They include people of similar interests sharing information, and that can't be too complicated, right? Well, yes and no. The first generation of Facebook groups was largely geared toward bringing disparate people together under a common interest or cause. Now, this batch of Groups is oriented around users organizing and streamlining their preexisting online circles.

True, the company already boasts a "Lists" feature, which allows users to divide their friends lists into more manageable categories. When used appropriately, a list can keep out Mom and Dad while letting your friends know where the rager is tonight. But, with only 5-percent of the Facebook community actively using the tool, Zuckerberg & Co. clearly felt that users needed an easier and more engaging way to create their own little cabinets of friends.

When a user creates a Group, he or she can independently anoint any or all of their friends as charter members. These new members can then add their pals to the circle, and, before long, the social snowball is well on its path downhill. The redesigned Group page, moreover, is noticeably more interactive than previous forums, and provides an infinitely more vivid user experience than does the Lists feature.
closed
Here, members can post links and messages on the Group Wall, as they can on most community pages, but they can also share and collaborate on collective documents. Groupies can chat with each other via a dialog box, whereby each member of the mini-community can instantly converse with everyone else. A system of mailing list-style notifications (turned on, by default), meanwhile, keeps all group members up to date with the latest posts and activity within their clique. Users customize what they see: whether to follow a post, user or picture, or not follow anything at all.

Unlike earlier versions of Facebook Groups, the new Groups are designed to be limited; people who aren't friends of any members can request to be added to the Group, but administrators themselves cannot singlehandedly add them.

Therein lies the most fundamentally distinct quality of Facebook's new Groups: the fact that they're about micro -- not macro -- communities. As Facebook explains on its Help Center, new Groups are "optimized for small groups of people; broader movements around public affiliations and causes are better suited for Facebook Pages." If you're looking to rouse support for gay rights, then, you're better off creating a page. If you're trying to reunite your high school class of '74, on the other hand, this Groups 2.0 option is for you.

Fortunately, new Groups are closed by default, although an administrator can always adjust a group's privacy level by selecting from three basic options:
  • closed openClosed Groups (default): Everyone on Facebook can see the names and members of closed Groups, but only members can see what actually goes on behind its closed doors.
  • Open Groups: With an open Group, the entire Facebook community not only can view its name and members, but can browse through all the photos, posts and images that the members share.
  • Secret Groups: Groups listed as secret will not show up in a search for similarly named groups, nor will it even appear on member profiles. For everyone on the outside, then, it's as if the Group doesn't exist at all.
By making Groups automatically closed, Facebook is essentially attempting to curry favor with users troubled by the site's notoriously sketchy privacy policy. Instead of sharing thoughts or links with their entire network, for example, users can now choose to share items with more intimate circles of friends -- meaning, theoretically, that you'll no longer have to worry about your Grandma stumbling upon your salacious, late night photo albums or drunken Wall posts. Assuming you have a group of friends that do want that info flooding their inboxes, that is...

Drawbacks and Pitfalls -- and How to Avoid Them

Ostensibly, then, Facebook Groups seem like a panacea for online privacy concerns; the feature allows users to create cliques on their own terms, and can guarantee safeguarded privacy for those who want it. There are, however, a few major caveats you should know before diving headfirst into 'Fuzzy Wuzzy Kitty Wuvvers,' your feline fan Group.

Opting-In vs. Opting-Out

For one, Facebook Groups are opt-out, not opt-in. What this means is that whenever one of your friends adds you to the group, you're automatically in it, whether you approve or not. The idea, apparently, is to render the process of creating your social bunker as easy and instantaneous as tagging your friends in a photo. The problem, of course, is that any one of your friends could punk you by putting you in an embarrassing group -- which is exactly what a guy named Jon Fisher did to Mark Zuckerberg.

In an attempt to expose what he believes to be a glaring weakness in the Facebook Groups system, Fisher created a group for NAMBLA (a pro-pedophilia advocacy group), and added his friends, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington and Mahalo founder Jason Calacanis, as its inaugural inductees. (Without anyone's consent, obviously.) Alarmed by Facebook's apparent loophole, Arrington then decided to add his pal Zuckerberg to the mock group, in order to draw his attention to the feature's potential for abuse.

The stunt, in this case, was relatively harmless and entirely pedagogical, but it wouldn't be hard to envision a scenario in which a competitive coworker or vindictive ex-lover uses the feature to target and embarrass someone with more veritable malice. "Imagine you are traveling to the United States from overseas, and your friends find it amusing to add you to a group that looks terrorist related," speculates Sophos' Chester Wisniewski. "You might find a welcoming committee from the border patrol that you weren't expecting."

Facebook, however, has thus far been unsympathetic to such early protests. "If you don't trust someone to look out for you when making these types of decisions on the site, we'd suggest that you shouldn't be friends on Facebook," a spokesperson told PC World. But if the thought of dumping your prankster friends makes your blood curdle with fear, you could simply opt-out of any suspicious groups whenever someone subscribes you to them.

leave group All you have to do is click on the 'Leave Group' option at the top right-hand corner of the group page, and your name will instantly vanish from the list of members. The downside, though, is that you won't be able to rejoin the group unless you explicitly request membership later on down the road. And, as All Facebook points out, sifting through all your notifications and removing yourself can be a hassle. Yet until Facebook comes to its senses and allows users to approve Group memberships, it's really the only option we have.

Clutter

As hypothetically cool as the Group chat feature sounds, some users have found it to be a bit unwieldy. If you find yourself in the middle of a small collection of close friends, the constant chatter probably won't bother you. If, on the other hand, you're in the epicenter of a mega Group, the constant notifications and persistently flashing browser tabs may very well send you into an epileptic fit. The only way to turn off the Group chat, though, is to deactivate Facebook chat entirely -- a sacrifice some may be hesitant to make. You could, of course, pop-out the chat box into a separate window, and then hide it behind other windows... but why waste all that energy?

notifications
It's not just crowded browsers and hyperactive windows that Facebook users must now worry about. Groups can all too easily flood our personal inboxes, as well. Receiving an e-mail notification each time you've been added to a Group is obviously necessary if you want to avoid involuntarily joining any NAMBLA-esque factions. But is it really crucial to notify users each time an individual member adds his two cents to the Group Wall? Sure, your most frequently visited Groups will always appear at the top of your home page, but that certainly won't prevent your least-frequented Groups from littering your personal space with unwanted mail. Click 'Edit Settings' at the top right of the Group page, and tone down the notification frequency.

Oh, and as for all those Groups you spent hours curating prior to last week's announcement, they're pretty much irrelevant now. Lists are still useful for managing privacy and fine control over general status updates, and they do still appear in chat. While pre-existing Groups will remain part of the Facebook pastiche, they will not be converted into the social network's new format, effectively relegating them to the Facebook basement for the foreseeable future.

Wasted time and energy aside, Business Insider's John Rae-Grant seems perplexed as to why Facebook couldn't combine its lists, groups and pages into a more elegant, user-friendly design. "If Facebook wanted to really fix Groups, why didn't they sit back, refactor all of the 'groupy' objects in Facebook, and really solve the problem," he asks. "This is another example of Facebook changing things -- perhaps for good reason -- but not delivering on the rationale and migration path, and thereby leaving the users, and the third parties in the dust."

Going Forward

So, how can Groups be successfully employed? A tool to keep out prying eyes it is not, but using the new platform as a solution to keep tightly bound persons together may be helpful. We've created a sort of "litmus test" to demonstrate how the new Groups may benefit you, and to point out instances in which you may want to skip it altogether.

Groups DO NOT work for:

  • Time-based events, like birthdays or upcoming shows and parties.
  • Where large groups of strangers are hoping to receive information, like businesses or fan clubs.
  • When participants aren't all acquainted.
  • If you are anticipating a large number of updates or inside conversations between members. The continually updated 'pings' can get annoying, quickly.
  • Would the group be encouraging friends to invite other pals? If so, are you sharing anything private? For instance, if a Group is debating whether or not zoning areas in a city should be changed, you may not want your political opinion being broadcast to strangers.
  • Any situation where you expect to have total privacy.

Groups DO work for:

  • Sharing memories and keeping tabs on a small group of people: camp friends, a graduating class, coworkers.
  • Extremely close friends on an intimate level: "AMAR'S BEST FRIENDS" or "PEEPS WHO'VE KNOWN EACH OTHER FOR 800 YEARS."
  • Sharing a documentable, long-term event with loved ones. Maybe all of Facebook doesn't want to see prenatal pics or your trip to Belize, but inviting Mom and Aunt Sally to the Group isn't a bad idea.
  • Topics you might send out in a large e-mail, but don't want to litter inboxes (e.g., graduation announcements or music critiques).
  • Specialty shops or clubs that want to broadcast new wares or pieces to interested members, allowing an exchange of feedback between shoppers and buyers.
For large groups of people, we suggest checking out our rundown of Facebook Pages. And, if you really want to edit what Nana sees, check out our friends at Engadget's handy walk-through for setting up simple lists to manage your privacy.

At the very least, then, Facebook's new Groups function definitely add a sense of clarity to the site's crowded slate of features. For one, the revamped features provide a clear delineation between Groups and Pages, which, in recent years, have often been interpreted and treated as one and the same. At the same time, it offers users a way to more actively engage with the segments of their friends they've already demarcated with the site's Lists feature.

We, as users, may not know how drastically this Groups tool will alter Facebook's landscape, but, for the moment at least, the site's topography has definitively changed. Instead of spending our online hours with virtually every person we've ever met, we may soon find ourselves huddled around digital campfires, with smaller entourages of drinking buddies, co-workers or family members. That is, of course, how we socialize in reality. But is that necessarily how we want to socialize on Facebook?

Tags: facebook, facebook groups, FacebookGroups, FacebookPrivacy, features, groups, Mark Zuckerberg, MarkZuckerberg, socialnetworking, top, web

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