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

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the company either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care how real Internet users think. As Nick Saint put it in BusinessInsider this week, “Facebook’s two least favorite words in the English language [are] opt in.”

It’s in part because of Facebook’s inveterate clumsiness with these things that Austin Chang, the co-founder of a Facebook rival called The Fridge, isn’t too worried about being outmuscled by the social-networking giant. The Fridge, which I profiled back in September, allows users to set up what Chang calls “lightweight, single-serving social networks,” often focused around transient events like weddings, group trips, or classes. Groups at The Fridge are private and opt-in by default; you have to get an e-mail invitation to join one, and you’re not part of a Fridge group until you’ve replied. It’s a vision that has so far attracted 10,000 users, including many at non-profit groups and colleges (ironically, Facebook’s original market).

While the new Facebook Group features do mean that users don’t have to go outside Facebook to easily create groups around specific interests, Chang doesn’t think this will destroy the niche The Fridge is trying to fill. “We are not about making lists, but about following the context that you care about,” he says. “It’s opt-in, I’m here because I care, and it’s very clear what this group is going to be talking about.”

Chang’s theory about Facebook isn’t that the company is tone-deaf to users’ concerns about control, but that it’s swept up by its ambition to promote transparency and openness in the process of connecting everyone on the Internet. The force-join problem and the fact that the membership of even closed groups is visible to everyone “are all product things that they could fix, but it goes against the core notion of what Facebook is trying to do, which is to become the White Pages of the Internet,” Chang says. “It actually just reinforces the fact that there is a need here for something different.”

Openness is a lofty and worthwhile philosophy, but maybe Facebook’s problem is that it tries to be so damned efficient about promoting it. In introducing the new Groups features at a Facebook press conference on Wednesday, Zuckerberg said the company considered many ways to promote more group creation on Facebook, including automatic algorithms that would match like-minded people. But it ultimately selected a tagging approach—where people create groups by, in effect, tagging their friends to be members—because it was the most efficient. “Just like [tagged] photos, groups have the property that not everyone has to set it up themselves,” Zuckerberg said, according to CNET’s live-blog report. “People will create a group and add people to it without the others having to do that work.”

But the most efficient approach isn’t always the most respectful of users and their right to control the way their names and their data are used on the site. And if there’s one thing that rings true about The Social Network, it’s the sense that “respectful” isn’t one of Facebook’s, or Zuckerberg’s, distinguishing traits.

Update, 10/8/10: PC World is reporting today that Facebook is aware of the force-join controversy. But in an e-mail to the publication, a Facebook spokesperson placed the burden of dealing with unwanted groups on individual Facebook users. “If you have a friend that is adding you to groups you do not want to belong to, or they are behaving in a way that bothers you, you can tell them to stop doing it, block them or remove them as a friend—and they will no longer ever have the ability to add you to any group,” the spokesperson wrote. “If you don’t trust someone to look out for you when making these types of decisions on the site, we’d suggest that you shouldn’t be friends on Facebook.”

* What upset and surprised me second-most about the movie was its misogyny. With just one exception—the attorney at the final deposition—the women in the film are portrayed as victims, clueless bureaucrats, dance-club floozies, and drug-seeking groupies. And oh yeah, there’s one psychotically jealous girlfriend who sets fire to a bed. And all this from the same writer who created C.J. Cregg, Allison Janney’s character in The West Wing. Incomprehensible.

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

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