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

10/8/10Follow @wroush

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 “never informed that I was ‘force-joined’” to the group. “If you guys want to run these new features by me before you launch them, I can probably save you from a couple of privacy lawsuits each year,” Calacanis quipped.

Anyone who’s watched The Social Network is bound to see some irony in the way Facebook Groups works. The premise of the movie is that Facebook’s early years were shaped by Zuckerberg’s bitterness over his exclusion from Harvard’s patrician final clubs. In Sorkin’s version of history, Zuckerberg double-crossed first his business associates Cameron and Tyler Winkelvoss, varsity rowers and Porcellian Club members for whom he’d agreed to develop a social networking site called Harvard Connect, and then his friend Eduardo Saverin, who was Facebook’s first investor and business manager but was frozen out of the company after he was accepted to the Phoenix Club.

If you buy all of that, then the funny part is that Zuckerberg wanted to get into a final club but was never invited—and now Facebook puts people into groups without even asking them.

Of course, it’s hazardous to make comparisons between the real world and the patently dramatized one of the movie. What upset me most* about The Social Network was its relentless portrayal of Zuckerberg as a self-absorbed adolescent whose ambition to build a new kind of communications tool—one of the most successful the world has ever seen—was entirely the product of his sublimated resentment. (I’m not sure whether this message originated in Ben Mezrich’s book, Sorkin’s screenplay, Fincher’s direction, or Jesse Eisenberg’s merciless performance as Zuckerberg; perhaps it was all of the above.) Zuckerberg is shown in the movie to have software-engineering chops, but there’s no sign that the filmmakers appreciate or even understand what he invented or how that invention is changing the world.

It’s not often that Hollywood turns its magic on entrepreneurs—so it’s a real shame when the guy who’s arguably the most influential entrepreneur since Bill Gates or Steve Jobs gets portrayed as an anti-hero. Facebook, despite its privacy missteps, has created something of real value and meaning to millions of people seeking to stay in contact online. (Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig makes this point much more eloquently in his review of the movie for The New Republic.)

But while I think Fincher and Sorkin give us a sadly distorted and one-sided picture of Facebook, I wouldn’t call them fabulists. Clearly, the filmmakers had a lot of real-world material to draw upon, and Facebook, in its endless push-and-pull with users over who gets to access and control their data, seems to keep creating more. Why is it so hard for the company to understand that people might not want to be added to groups and e-mail lists without giving their permission first? This is why Google Groups and virtually every other group and mailing list mechanism I know about are opt-in by default, not opt-out. The “force-join” nature of the new Groups reinforces the impression that 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.

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

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  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri

    Hey Wade. I haven’t seen the movie but I’ll be glad to have your lens on it before I go. Happily, it will save me from getting angry over the last objection since you already did it for me.

    But here’s an angle to consider on your main point. Namely youthful blinders and limited life experience. Here’s a parallel. When I look at etsy (also a young founder) I see a site with brilliant content and vision but absolutely no clue how their most likely/productive customers need to search and shop. You are “forced” to spend countless hours experiencing unwanted choices because the founder overly prioritizes an open marketplace over customer experience.

    I often see the same in Facebook. A guy with a brilliant vision but not enough life experience to understand diversity. I have seen these blinders in older founders too so perhaps youth is not the issue. But come on! Forced Groups???

    When I was at social network Ziggs we built a beautiful Groups feature (we competed with LinkedIn and they had not touched Groups. They still really haven’t done it well.). As busy adults with multiple social networks of varying importance, the fundamental tenant was “quick, easy, voluntary.” I think Zuckerberg’s only social network is his group of subordinate employees who have to agree with his vision. (And being a fellow entrepreneur, I can see how very easily that could happen, even innocently.) Perhaps that is the reason for his curious inability to prioritize other points of view.

  • http://www.woodka.com donna

    Facebook is like America — it will eventually do the right thing after it does all the wrong things.

    It is still little more than an amusement to me, where things like Twitter and Tumblr have become profoundly interesting parts of my day. The things most people are willing to post in a forum that may include any of their friends or family are rather mundane. The things people post in a forum of interested friends or strangers who choose to follow them or read their blogs are far more intriguing.

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  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @Jules — I think you’re probably right. So many people have come and gone at Facebook, and Zuckerberg is the one constant. He seems to have a Steve Jobs-like commitment to overseeing product development, so it’s probably safe to say he either explicitly or implicitly endorsed the forced groups feature. Objections that seem obvious to outsiders or those with more experience may simply escape him or seem trivial. The odd thing is that COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose role is reportedly to provide some adult supervision and counterbalance Zuckerberg on decisions like this, apparently didn’t step in.

  • Jules Pieri, CEO Daily Grommet

    Wade, I thought that exact same thing. OK maybe Mark has never dealt with a Mother-in-law who likes to send too many stupid cat jokes, or a hyper Softball coach who thinks you want to hear from him every day, or a condo association gone militant, but surely Sheryl has. She should understand perfectly well that all groups are not created equal. And that it is awkward to opt out of your psychotic family or PTA group, but pretty easy not to opt in.

    By the way, I admire Mark for staying close to product and that he trusts himself to be the leader. I just think his definition of leader may be too closed-minded.

  • http://technologyreview.com Conrad Warre

    While facebook has been an interesting case study, complaining about a service that is free to it’s users seems fairly meaningless. As soon as you enter the web you have implicitly given up some aspects of control and/or secrecy about your identity, ranging from your IP, to Geo Location, hosting/isp, bandwidth access, OS, time of day, frequuency, the size of your monitor, the list is almost endless – you’ve (auto) already been recognized as a part of some group whether you like it or not – and the sites you visit will treat you, and serve you according to their wishes – not necessarily yours.

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  • rjr_of_florida

    I’m sold on the Frid.ge for staying connected in ad hoc ways with select people. For instance with selected groups such as groups of friends from school–not elementary school friends who look you up from ages ago and latch on to your whole network via other social networking sites. Work groups, task oriented associations, neighborhood friends, mentor/mentee connections, etc. are other viable examples. This company will undoubtedly scale up as it receives more visibility.