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Facebook Gets Cliquey

Facebook Gets Cliquey

Facebook's big reveal Wednesday involved new options for the ways it handles groups. The site already lets users form group pages, but now Facebookers can cordon their own friends into discreet groups themselves and make communications within those groups private from outsiders. The site also showed a new way to see exactly what Facebook knows about you as well as a new app audit feature.

Defying expectations that it would announce a complete site redesign, a new integration agreement with Skype or even a phone of its very own, Facebook instead unveiled a revamped groups feature on Wednesday, along with new tools to audit how apps are using personal data and to download all of a user's data to a browser-viewable file.

The groups feature was the highlight of the announcement from Facebook's Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters. It allows users to create personal groups of their own choosing that correspond with social circles or roles in the users' lives -- a family group, for instance, or one for a weekend running club.

Semi-Private Knowledge

The change solves what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called "the biggest problem in social networking" -- the tension between sharing with closer friends and having to also share those relatively intimate details with more distant relationships.

The revamped groups service is being headed up by Justin Shaffer, the former CEO of Facebook-acquired Hot Potato. That service enabled group-based social networking based on common interests or events. "We really think this is going to change fundamentally how you use Facebook today," he said.

The groups feature differs from the existing groups functionality in Facebook in that users can add their own friends to new groups. For instance, a mother could add her husband and children to a closed family group, the add her friends from work to another group. Groups also include a dedicated email, allowing members to communicate as if over a mailing list. It also includes group chat, in which all members are able to simultaneously participate.

Addressing privacy concerns, Facebook made groups closed by default, meaning their title and members are visible, but content is not, and uninvited members will have to request to join. It's also possible to create fully cloaked secret groups. Groups will also include a shared document editing space for tasks such as grocery lists or collaborative projects.

Group Confusion

Whether groups will truly prove to be a security improvement has yet to be seen, according to Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a frequent Facebook privacy critic.

"You have to wonder what Facebook will do with information about your social connections," he told TechNewsWorld.

However, Sree Sreenivasan, dean of student affairs and digital media professor at the Columbia Journalism School, said he thinks Facebook has turned the corner on privacy.

"If they live up to their own very simply self-described privacy standards, Facebook will not have a privacy problem," he said.

Facebook may, however, encounter a confusion problem.

Not long after the changes were announced, users took to Twitter to herald, decry and discuss the announcement. It wasn't long before other users began questioning all the hoopla, saying Facebook had long had groups. Sreenivasan himself found out about Facebook's changes when people began emailing him with concerns about what might happen to their existing groups (nothing, according to Facebook).

"In many ways, this is very good, but it can also be very confusing," he said.

Check Yourself

The other tools allow users to download all of their data and to monitor and more easily adjust how applications and other sites linked to their Facebook accounts use their data.

The download feature allows users to request a zipped folder containing a browser-viewable file with all of their wall posts, photos, videos and other details.

Product manager David Recordon said the file will be protected by password and sometimes Captcha requests to prevent unauthorized downloads.

The apps dashboard provides a detailed log showing when applications called up Facebook's API and what information is shared. It also includes an integrated way to adjust settings controlling how that data is shared.

The changes will help protect user privacy in more ways than one, said Product Manager Carl Sjogreen.

"Greater visibility into what data applications are using is great for users, but it also has this positive impact on developers in that they'll be much more judicious about the permissions and the data that they use on users' behalf," he said.

Facebook has been the subject of intense privacy complaints in recent years. Critics have attacked the company's attitude toward helping users keep their data private, citing decisions to default many privacy settings to full sharing and making it difficult for many users to understand complicated privacy policy menus. However, Zuckerberg said privacy and user control are at the heart of the new services.

"It's a core part of our belief that people own and should have control over the information they give to Facebook," he said. The new tools began trickling out to users on Wednesday. It's not clear when all of Facebook's 500 million users would have access to the changes.


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