Facebook Groups demonstrate the downside of “social design”

Facebook rolled out a number of new features yesterday — and today the inevitable backlash followed.

The complaints focused on Facebook Groups, a feature allowing users to create a private space to communicate with friends, family, or co-workers. The catch is that your Facebook friends can add you to groups without your permission. Mahalo chief executive (and supposed Facebook dropout) Jason Calacanis made the biggest splash with his complaints after he was added to a National Association of Man Boy Love group. I’ve seen similar complaints on Twitter, over email, and in-person. The common message: Did Facebook totally fail to think this through?

But regardless of whether you agree with the decision or not, it seems clear to me that this is something Facebook executives thought about. Probably a lot. When chief executive Mark Zuckerberg described Groups at the product launch yesterday, he spent much more time talking about the social dynamics than he did about any specific product features. Giving users the ability to add other users to Groups is the key to making the feature spread, he said.

There was less explicit discussion about whether Groups should be opt-in (someone invites you to a group, but you must approve the invitation before you’re actually added) or opt-out (the current implementation, where you’re automatically added but have the ability to leave and block future invitations). Yet the opt-out approach seems like an extension of Facebook’s design philosophy, an approach that Zuckerberg and vice president of product Chris Cox described as “social design.”

The key to social design, Cox said, is that “the interactions of one person … affect and organize the interactions of the people around them.” Cox repeated the phrase during his speech and called it “profound”, prompting me to snicker along with some of the other journalists around me.

Maybe we should have been paying closer attention. There was a dark side to Cox’s statement that I didn’t really catch until today’s complaints. When someone’s actions “affect and organize” your life, that can be useful, but it can also be a huge pain. That dynamic is at the heart of many complaints about Facebook, when users discover that their friends make offensive comments on their Wall or tag them in drunken photos. It’s always possible to un-tag a photo or erase a comment, just as it’s possible to leave a group. The problem is that someone will probably see that stuff before you do.

For Facebook, the approach seems to be worth the user complaints. The photo-tagging feature was controversial, but director of engineering Andrew Bosworth told me yesterday that tagging is what made Facebook the top photo site. After all, until last month’s Photos upgrade, tagging was pretty much “the only feature”.

As for me, I’m not too worried about being added to stupid or offensive Groups. It might happen, but hey, that’s what the “Unfriend” button is for.

[image via Productdose]


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  1. [...] by one person, and people usually browse them based on the users tagged in each image. (In fact, Facebook director of engineering Andrew Bosworth has said that has said user tagging was the key feature that turned Facebook Photos into a huge success.) [...]