Facebook Gets Cliquey

Defying expectations that it would announce a complete site redesign, a new integration agreementwith Skype or even a phone of its very own, Facebook instead unveiled a revampedgroups feature on Wednesday, along with new tools to audit how apps areusing personal data and to download all of a user’s data to abrowser-viewable file.

The groups feature was the highlight of theannouncement from Facebook’s Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters. It allowsusers to create personal groups of their own choosing that correspondwith social circles or roles in the users’ lives — a family group, forinstance, or one for a weekend running club.

Semi-Private Knowledge

The change solves what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called “the biggestproblem in social networking” — the tension between sharing withcloser 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, theformer CEO of Facebook-acquired Hot Potato. That service enabledgroup-based social networking based on common interests or events.”We really think this is going to change fundamentally how you useFacebook today,” he said.

The groups feature differs from the existing groups functionality inFacebook in that users can add their own friends to new groups. Forinstance, a mother could add her husband and children to a closedfamily group, the add her friends from work to another group. Groups also include a dedicated email, allowing membersto 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, anduninvited members will have to request to join. It’s also possible tocreate fully cloaked secret groups. Groups will also include a shareddocument editing space for tasks such as grocery lists orcollaborative projects.

Group Confusion

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

“You have to wonder what Facebook will do with information about yoursocial connections,” he told TechNewsWorld.

However, Sree Sreenivasan, dean of student affairs and digital mediaprofessor at the Columbia Journalism School, said he thinks Facebookhas turned the corner on privacy.

“If they live up to their own very simply self-described privacystandards, 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 toherald, decry and discuss the announcement. It wasn’t long beforeother users began questioning all the hoopla, saying Facebook had longhad groups. Sreenivasan himself found out about Facebook’s changeswhen people began emailing him with concerns about what might happento 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 tomonitor and more easily adjust how applications and other sites linkedto their Facebook accounts use their data.

The download feature allows users to request a zipped foldercontaining 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 bypassword and sometimes Captcha requests to prevent unauthorizeddownloads.

The apps dashboard provides a detailed log showing when applicationscalled up Facebook’s API and what information is shared. It also includes anintegrated 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 forusers, but it also has this positive impact on developers in thatthey’ll be much more judicious about the permissions and the data thatthey use on users’ behalf,” he said.

Facebook has been the subject of intense privacy complaints in recentyears. Critics have attacked the company’s attitude toward helpingusers keep their data private, citing decisions to default manyprivacy settings to full sharing and making it difficult for manyusers to understand complicated privacy policy menus. However, Zuckerbergsaid 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 havecontrol over the information they give to Facebook,” he said.The new tools began trickling out to users on Wednesday. It’s notclear when all of Facebook’s 500 million users would have access tothe changes.

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