Just When I Was Working Up Some Sympathy for Mark Zuckerberg—Facebook Blows It Again

I was going to write an impassioned column this week attacking David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin for the hatchet job they performed on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. I can’t remember the last time a movie made me so angry; no entrepreneur who’s created such a beloved and successful service, even if he’s the world’s youngest and smuggest billionaire, deserves such shabby treatment.

But a few days after I saw the film, Facebook came along with an update to its Groups feature that really does deserve to be hammered. There’s an unfortunate flaw in the new Groups that once again illustrates the company’s curious social ineptitude—its seeming inability to anticipate how users will react to changes that reduce their ability to control their experiences on the site. The move reminded me why an organization that’s so widely admired is also so widely feared and resented. So I’m going to look instead at why parts of The Social Network do seem to hit the target.

The overhauled Groups feature allows people to chat and share posts, links, photos, videos, and the like with hand-picked subsets of their Friends list. Considered alone, that’s a nice improvement. It’s a common experience to have news or links that you want to share just with a few friends or family members—but the way the News Feed used to work on Facebook, you had little choice but to shout them out all 300 people on your Friends list. Lately, whole companies like The Fridge and MicroMobs have sprung up to offer “private Facebooks” that address the reality of people’s multiple, overlapping social networks, some of which are small and closed, others large and open. (More on one of these startups in a moment.) The new version of Facebook Groups finally allows you to have multiple personas on the site: you can share different stuff with different groups, just as you do in real life.

The problem—and it’s a pretty big one—lies in the way groups get created. Any Facebook user can create a group by unilaterally selecting people from his or her Friends list. (It’s just like tagging friends in a photo.) These friends get added to the group immediately—in other words, there’s no “opt-in.” Unless the creator of the group categorizes it as “Secret,” everyone on Facebook can see who’s in the group. People who’ve been added to a group (which can also function as an e-mail list) have the ability to leave it, but to do so they have to take a few steps—read their e-mail, go to Facebook, click a “Remove” button.

This new feature creates endless room for mischief and spam and almost guarantees that users will end up getting added to groups that they would never join, given the choice. Yesterday, Mahalo CEO and frequent Facebook critic Jason Calacanis published an e-mail to Zuckerberg complaining that he and TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington had been added—presumably as a cheap stunt—to a group called NAMBLA, which happen to the initials for the North American Man-Boy Love Association. Calacanis pointed out that he was “never asked to join” the NAMBLA group and claimed that he was … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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