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Just a few of your closest friends[Peter Yared is the vice president of apps at Webtrends, which acquired Transpond, a social-apps developer he founded. He submitted this column to VentureBeat.]

For a so-called social utility, Facebook has been getting more and more useless.

At first, Facebook friend overload was an early-adopter problem for overnetworked Silicon Valley insiders. But now, friend overload is hitting the mainstream consciousness. Many people who have been using Facebook for a few years find themselves inundated with friend requests by everyone from elementary school classmates to work colleagues. The resulting mess of casual acquaintances on Facebook has quickly overwhelmed newsfeeds with uninteresting minutiae and people you really don’t care to see.

In response, there has been a lot of recent activity by startups exploring concepts related to small groups of friends. Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley has long talked about how his location-based service has a more “real” social graph — people with whom you’re willing to share your location. Path is run by Dave Morin, a well-known ex-Facebook employee, and isd elivering a mobile photo sharing network for your 50 closest pals. Newly popular startups like GroupIn are bringing group texting back into vogue. Even Google is rumored to be getting in on the game with its Friend Circles feature, which although it is not shipping as a product, has been shown around as a prototype to the likes of Web pundit and conference organizer Tim O’Reilly.

So what will Facebook do? Be relegated to being a replacement for Evite, Flickr, and your PDA? Or reassert itself in the sphere of maintaing close contact with friends?

Facebook employees use Facebook voraciously, so it’s not as if they don’t know about this problem. Although Morin jumped ahead of his former company, Facebook has had a few attempts in this space, first with Friend Lists, where users would manually add friends to lists they made such as “College Friends”. However, this proved to be too cumbersome. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg observed that “Most people don’t want to create lists of things, but the act of adding friends is a very nice feeling. No doubt it would be better if everyone had these friend groups [automatically] created.”

The next attempt, Facebook Groups was a resounding disaster. Since anyone could add friends to a group, they quickly grew into large, amorphous collections of people. Your entire high school class may now be a group, but not your real friends.

So here’s the fix, according to my sources: Facebook engineers, longtime fans of graph theory, are starting to derive “friend clusters,” or tight interconnections amongst a group of friends. F or example, Facebook knows when a substantial number of coworkers have friended each other, and even knows that there are more people on the periphery that are close to parts of the company. Facebook has been incrementally adding this friend clusters feature in subtle ways. When you pull up a photo album from a friend, in the “people you may know” section to the right will often recommend people that you probably know in common with that person. This is because Facebook knows not just that you have friend in common with the person you are looking at, but who else has a lot of commonality but is not currently in your friend list.

It is likely that Facebook will soon introduce automated lists, and present user with lists of people and ask them questions like “Are these your coworkers”? By adding heuristics like how often users message, comment, and tag each other in photos, it will figure out who are tight friends of clusters. Even further, as evidenced by Facebook’s acquisition of the group messaging service Beluga, by watching how quickly people respond to each other — a feature I like to call “response velocity” — Facebook will start to figure out who your real friends are.

There are people you answer the phone for, and write back to immediately, and there are people you don’t do that for. Facebook is uniquely positioned to learn which is which — an advantage Google and other rivals can’t match.

Now that’s a real social utility.

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