Groupthink / by Dan Weingrod

Facebook’s new Groups are really useful. And they could make the social networking platform an even more powerful and ubiquitous force.

Last week Facebook announced a number of changes to its platform. While many had expected to see an overhaul of the site’s design, the announcement focused on some seemingly smaller enhancements. However, one of these, a new structure for Facebook Groups, could become a breakthrough in building deeper loyalty, ubiquity and real world utility for the biggest social platform of all.

What’s different about Facebook Groups is that its new structure and approach may solve what Mark Zuckerberg called: “the biggest problem in Social Networking”. The problem is actually very critical for any social network: How can you easily and seamlessly build or replicate real world relationships you have with groups of friends? Think about it, when you want to get together with friends in person you don’t want your Mom or Uncle suddenly popping into the discussion. You want to get together and share in a way that is relevant to the group. Up to now though this type of activity lived on the Wall or News Feed for everyone to see and comment on. For many people this was fine and it was critical in growing many friend networks and Facebook adoption. But for many more was overwhelming and brought up the same question: What if you didn’t want EVERYBODY to see your wall posts?

Facebook has tried a number of ways to solve this problem. There has long been the option to create lists, but it was too much effort. As Zuckerberg noted, “The most we’ve gotten is 5% of people to make a list”. Another option explored was algorithmic, but in the end they arrived at a solution by considering basic user activity.

Apparently 95% of Facebook users are tagged in photos. Tagging is a relatively simple task, initiated by the “tagger” and one that essentially brings the “tagee” into a group sphere. The core of the new Groups concept is that, like tagging, membership begins with the group organizer who invites members by simply typing their name. The new Group structure adds one more critical feature: The option to make new groups private or public. These combination of these features are what will lead to Facebook Groups’ success.

Prior to this change, pretty much anyone could join a Group whether invited or not, which led to a plethora of serious or whacky groups created and joined fairly randomly. With the ability to initiate private groups suddenly Facebook has created an opportunity to capitalize on the most appealing and growing area of social discussion, group conversation. Now you can have deeper more relevant conversations, not the basic declarative conversations that Facebook is usually all about. As an example in less than a minute I was able to create a family Facebook group for my so I could bring together both my sons, who are on two separate continents, my wife and myself. The group allows us to privately post items that for each other to see, create ongoing family discussions and most importantly initiate private group chats through Facebook’s Instant Messaging tool.  This last feature should not be underestimated. Through Facebook’s recent alliance with Skype, the distance between group online chat and voice and video conference calling within Facebook Groups will soon be a button click away.

The potential for Groups is huge and it’s not just for personal group communications. Businesses can benefit from the seamless, private and free connectivity that Facebook Groups offers by creating groups for employees who are collaborating on a project. Event planning, threaded chats, video sharing and conferencing are among the many ideas yet to come.  Already some commentators have noted a move from Google and Yahoo Groups to the new Facebook alternative. Small wonder by adding the flexibility of groups to its scope and scale Facebook will likely increase its position as a key social destination.