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Irony: Facebook's New Groups Give Me Less Control, Not More

I missed Facebook’s press conference yesterday about the new Facebook Groups feature that promises that you can share comments, photos and other information more tightly among only people you trust. But I learned about the feature firsthand soon enough, when I found myself added to a group without being asked. And that was worrisome.

Robert Scoble had created the group, invited a number of people, and I was flattered to be included. But Facebook should have asked me first, not just let Robert Scoble or anyone put me into a group without permission.

In fact, I was pretty aghast this had happened. This company has time-and-time-again been accused of trying to push people into being less private, giving them less control. Here, yet again it rolls out a feature that suggests better privacy but gets things wrong. Share with only those you “care about the most” and “feel confident about who sees” what you post, the Facebook blog posts pitch us. But groups go wrong from the beginning, by failing to ask if you want to be included.

It gets worse. As best I can tell, once you’re in a group, you can add anyone else to it. I’m pretty sure the rest of the group members aren’t notified when you do this. The group I’m in started with no one, and now it’s up to over 500 people. I wasn’t told when new people were added, nor is there a notification option for this:

Imagine. You create a group for your 10 best friends, so you can all share pictures and information about your kids. One of them adds a few more people they trust, and so on, and your “private” group is now exposed to friends of friends of friends — who probably aren’t your friends. You weren’t asked about any of this, and the material you thought was private now has wider circulation than you may have originally assumed.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the protected groups idea, and it’ll work fine in many cases. But Facebook should ask everyone placed into a group if they want to be there. And there should be some system for the group admins to prevent other members from inviting new people, if they’d like to keep it restricted.

Over at Gigaom, Mathew Ingram has a nice piece illustrating another issue with anyone being added to any group without permission. Jason Calacanis found himself added to a purported NAMBLA group (a man-boy love group) and wasn’t particularly happy. (Note: the postscript below and my follow-up article, Blame One Of Calacanis’s Own 5,000 Facebook “Friends” For Putting Him In The NAMBLA Group, goes into more depth about this.)

The piece also gets into issues about how the groups begin sending you notifications without asking permission. I found this extremely annoying yesterday, when it began hitting me.

It’s pretty simple. Don’t opt us into anything without asking first – and don’t let anyone else opt us into anything on our behalf, without our permission — even our friends.

For related news, see Techmeme.

Postscript: I’ve had a chance to talk with Facebook PR now on some of the issues. Spokesperson Jaime Schopflin stressed that no one could be added to a group unless they were friends with another member of the group, and there’s an assumption that your friends wouldn’t do stupid things.

For example, Calacanis wasn’t added to the NAMBLA group by just anyone. It was done by one of his friends. In particular, it was done by Jon Fisher (NOTE: There are many Jon Fishers in the world, and one of them claiming to be the most “conspicuous” one on the internet wants me to inform the world that he is not the Jon Fisher that I’m talking about. Nor was I talking about him or linked to him, but see the second postscript for more about this):

who you can see is a friend of Jason Calacanis:

Calacanis has many “friends” that he’s added to his personal profile who aren’t really friends, which I find is fairly common among different tech writers I follow. Fisher clearly did this to him as a joke. In fact, Fisher’s particular NAMBLA group is obviously a joke.

That’s Facebook’s biggest point, I’d say, in issues like this. Schopflin stressed that Facebook is designed to help you connect with your “real friends,” and if a real friend added you to a group as what happened with Jason, you’d unfriend them.

Personally, I’ve felt Facebook has a strong push of connecting people to others who aren’t their real friends. In particular, I can remember constantly getting “Friend Finder” suggestions of people I didn’t know, though looking today, either Friend Finder is dead or has given up on me.

There’s also the issue that all types of people will try to friend others, and some people will simply friend back out of courtesy or to avoid a confrontation. There’s the classic question of what to do when your boss friends you. Do you say no? But if you let them in, now they can add you to groups, should they decide.

Of course, you can always leave any group you’re added to. That, along with the expected good behavior of your friends, seems to be why Facebook has kept it “simple” Schopflin said and not required people to confirm they want to be in a group. Similarly, there’s not a concern about how members of a group can add other members because since those members are your friends, you don’t expect them to invite others who shouldn’t be there.

By the way, an important point. If a friend adds you to a group, and you remove your self from that group, that can’t add you back to that or ANY group in the future.

I still prefer the old system of how groups worked, where you received an invite and then chose to join, if you wanted. I’d like that back. I’d also like an option for a group administrator to prevent members from adding other members to a group, if they choose. Finally, a notification option to let members know when new members were added might be nice.

Postscript 2 (October 10, 2010): Today I received an email from a “Jon Fisher” who is concerned that people might think he is the Jon Fisher that was involved in this story. His email:

You link to Jon Fisher in facebook piece that is now disabled facebook page. I am most conspicuous Jon Fisher on Internet (Google yields my Wikipedia page and Blog #1/#2 results). I had nothing to do with the facebook incident (I am not even a member of facebook) yet readers and other press are extrapolating my involvement from irresponsible reporting like yours. Please print a correction, clarification, or retraction immediately or I will refer to counsel.

I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t even aware that there was ANY conspicuous Jon Fisher! As this was about a Jon Fisher on Facebook doing this, I actually searched at Facebook to find the “right” Jon — and linked to that Jon — which isn’t the Jon who is so very upset with me. That Jon, by the way, appears to be this person. He’s also got a blog post up to tell the world he’s not the Jon who did the Facebook joke over here.

I never said nor suggested that this “conspicuous” Jon Fisher was involved with this Facebook joke. I linked to the “right” Jon, and you’d think the “wrong” Jon could figure that out. But be it known unto all who read this that the “most conspicuous” Jon Fisher on the internet was not involved with this. Nor were any kittens harmed by any Jons, Fishers or otherwise.

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