facebook groupThere was a little get-together for tech reporters at Facebook headquarters today. You may have heard about it. Whenever Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, summons an audience because he’s got something to announce about Facebook, life as we know it grinds to a halt. Or so it seems.

Not only have I heard and seen a zillion blog posts and news reports about the latest Facebook changes in the hours following the press conference, many of the posts were even published during the press conference – all indicative of the frenzy to cover all things Facebook. Others have written quite comprehensively about each of the changes, so what can I possibly add to the conversation? Some friends and I took the new Facebook Groups for a test-drive to find out.

New Groups

After I had finished writing several hundred words about the pros and cons of the new group functionality and interface, I sat back and realized there was one big con staring at me. I set aside the columns of pluses and minuses and decided to focus on my largest concern.

First, it is important to know that these new Facebook Groups will be the only Facebook Groups. In other words, the old style of groups is no longer an option if you’re looking to create a new group. Groups already in existence will remain as they are, at least for the moment.

The new Facebook Groups were promoted as a better way to communicate and share content only with those who are in your appropriate social circle, rather than sharing everything with everyone. (As an aside – I manage this religiously and easily with friends lists, but Facebook says only 5% of people use this feature.) Zuckerberg used the example of a family as a group which might want to share specific content only with specific people, kind of like sitting around the dinner table. Seems reasonable enough. But, when you dig a little deeper, I don’t think it scales. And it easily, very easily, becomes not so private.

In setting up a new group, the admin has three options: Public, Closed and Secret. Public is self-explanatory. Closed means the content is visible only to members, but the list of members is public. Secret means the content and the list of members is hidden, and the group doesn’t appear in search. In all cases, and this is important, each member has the ability to add friends to the group.

And, when I say add, what I mean is that anyone in the group can simply add any of their Facebook friends to the group. There is no invitation to join, which the other person can choose to accept or ignore. This works like photo tagging on Facebook. You’re added, but have the option to leave if you choose to do so. It is an opt-out system, not opt-in.

So, here’s the thing

Membership in the old Facebook Groups could be tightly managed, if that is what was appropriate for that particular group. University alumni associations limited membership to those who graduated from the school. High school band members could comfortably and safely discussing their plans without wondering who else was listening. There are many extremely valid reasons for having a closely managed group with a gatekeeper who allowed only those meeting certain criteria to join.

Today, Zuckerberg was asked about this: “If any member has the ability to add any of their friends to the group, how can we be sure that only the ‘right’ people are included in the conversation?” The answer…There is a notification when someone is added to the group (such as: Dave Smith added Lucy Keepawayfromme) and, if you see that someone is added who shouldn’t be, an admin can then remove them.

Yikes! Is this really a way to manage membership?

Maybe, maybe, if there was a way to be notified by email when a member is added, this might be marginally workable. This is not the case, however. As a group admin or member, we can opt to be notified of several actions within the group, but not the addition of a new member. This notification appears only in the stream on the group page and quickly floats away as new content is posted. It is very easy to miss this notification altogether.

But, isn’t discovery cool?

I get that Facebook really likes everything to be public and viral. I get the whole “discovery of new people and content is cool” thing. I have benefited greatly from this openness online myself. I’ve discovered and met fantastic people and learned valuable information, none of which I would have otherwise encountered. What I don’t get is the relentless push to make everyone embrace this way of thinking.

By no longer offering an option for groups to be open only to certain people, everything changes. Sure I can remove a persona-non-grata should someone add them to the group (and if I even happen to notice that they’ve been added), but by the time I’ve removed them, they have had access to all of the group’s content – content which was shared with the understanding that it was private. The family photos, the plans about where the marching band will be practicing next Tuesday or the fundraising goals being discussed by the board of a non-profit – all it takes is for one member of your group to add someone who shouldn’t be there. Whether this happens maliciously or is the result of a misunderstanding of the group parameters, the result is the same.

Sure, lots of folks will love and use the new groups. There are a number of features I really like. The new groups are fabulous for open discussions for many purposes. Where Facebook has gone astray, I’m afraid, is by choosing to force all groups, organizations, clubs and schools to take this path. And, to position the change as a way to keep things more private feels sketchy, at best.

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