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Facebook Groups Give Rise to Social Nicheworking

Facebook announced a new platform for Facebook Groups recently. Rather than jump into the fray to share my immediate reactions, I opted to instead allow the news and its promise settle.

Like many, my initial reaction was that of disappointment. After all, I was almost immediately bombarded with emails notifying me that I was added to groups where I did not request nor authorize membership. Plus, I was subsequently hammered with email updates as new group members added their commentary to the various group walls.

But was this Facebook’s fault or the fault of trigger happy enthusiasts?

Indeed, Facebook was forcing us to opt-out rather than opt-in. While many expressed otherwise, what was clear, is that this move is exactly what Facebook intended. In order to grow Facebook adoption and incite deeper engagement with the platform, it would have to further push us outside of our comfort zones. And, that’s the point. If Facebook waited for us to adopt new features, its rate of growth and new adoption would lose inertia. In a world where our attention is captivated by all things real-time, Facebook as a business and as an platform would become vulnerable.

Zuckerberg was clear. He put the power of group creation and member curation in the hands of the individual. Without doing so, Groups would not realize its full potential.

As Zuckerberg explained, “You try to make it as easy as possible and give people control. It’s very easy to turn a group off. Also there’s really this self-selection. You’ll interact with groups that have a lot of interaction within them. Whereas a group like that, maybe it’ll grow, but then what. If you have a group for your family, your roommates, your classmates or something that’s actually useful. The product is designed so that the groups you actually use go to the top of the home page. The other ones will just fall away. ”

The idea of self-selection is almost precipitated by a sense of selection. In many cases, we are chosen for groups and similarly, we choose certain individuals for the groups we create. As in anything, this must be done with discretion. And if we’ve learned anything over the years with email lists, many individuals prefer to opt-in to communication. To help prevent Groups and their organizers from eliciting a form of chaos theory, some very interesting measures were introduced.

Yes, you can add someone from your social graph to a Group, but if that person leaves the group, you lose the ability to automatically add that person back. Consider a personal invitation to join instead. As I’ve always expressed, “With social media, comes great responsibility.”

Per Matt Hicks at Facebook in response to this post…

Once you leave a group, you can’t be added again by anyone to that specific group.  This doesn’t change what your friend can or can’t do with regard to other groups. What’s most important are the social norms around inviting friends to Groups that you point out in your post. Although people don’t lose the ability to add friends to other groups, they need to consider the impact that adding a friend will have on that person.

Just because we have the ability to invite people into Groups or to check them into Places, we have to consider the social costs of doing so.

What is the impact of this action on my relationship with this individual?

Does adding them to this Group or checking them into this location hurt or help the stature and value of my position?

As an online society of social denizens, we typically underestimate the potential of social networking and the economy that governs it. Social capital is more valuable than we realize and the currency that determines its net worth is represented by our individual social actions and how they accumulate in the short and long term.

This is your time to define who you are and the value you behold…

Groups Usher an Era of Social Nicheworks

The most interesting aspect of social networks as they exist today is that they’re structured around you. As such, the infrastructure that supports your social graph places your updates and activity at the center of your social graph. While you’re given elementary controls to select who sees what, the majority of status updates are published for everyone. As you and I know, that’s simply not at all how human interaction works in the real world.

The real life social network is designed to facilitate the creation and cultivation of discreet social graphs.  The people who populate each and also what we say and do is different across each group.

Paul Adams works on the UX team at Google. He recently gave a presentation (slides here) that discussed the idea of contextual networking, which actually led to the speculation of whether or not we were getting a glimpse of Google’s rumored social network, Google Me.

His presentation is the result of years of research in how people network online and offline. And, it demonstrates the need for us to intentionally channel our activity in its most favorable directions.

The example he shared was that of a user named “Debbie.” Here are some of his slides and experiences…

Debbie is still connected to a group of friends she made when she lived in Los Angeles.

She now also maintains a network of new friends in San Diego, where she currently lives, in the same social graph.

Of course, she is still in contact with her family.

Debbie is also an active swimmer and trains ten year old kids in competitive swimming. She has friended other trainers and some of the kids in her class.

In L.A., some of Debbie’s friends work in a gay bar. They share photos on Facebook of wild and memorable nights in the bar.

Debbie loves the pictures and often comments on them.

By nature of design, the 10 year old kids that have friended Debbie can also see her activity as well as the pictures she’s commented on.

Debbie realized, for the first time, that the kids could see this activity and she was upset at herself for not realizing this earlier. She blamed the system for letting it happen.

As Paul observed, the problem isn’t Facebook. The problem is that one social network does not represent how we “network” in real life and exposes discreet groups to one another intentionally or unintentionally.

In reality, we do not have one group of friends. Nor should we have only one social graph. We maintain networks of friends, peers, associates, family and each are governed by varying levels of interest, themes, intimacy, and expectations.

According to Paul’s work at Google, people tend to have between 4 and 6 real life groups.

And each of those groups tends to have between 2 and 10 people.

In social networking, the patterns appear to be very similar. While social networks such as Facebook and Twitter make it easier to connect, we still maintain relationships (strong ties) and also “relations” (weak ties).  What’s changing, is the abundance of weak ties, driven by context and interest. This is also a reflection of the intermingling of our personal and professional contacts.

According to Paul, a study of 3,000 randomly chose Americans showed that we maintained just four strong times. Many held between two to six.

A separate study of 1,178 adults found that on average, people maintained regular contact with 10 friends on a weekly basis.

On Facebook, the average size of the social graph is 130. Studies show that the vast majority of Facebook users interact regularly with 4 to 6 people.

As the size of social graphs increases, we’re introduced to the idea of temporary ties. We’re introduced to these fleeting relationships through projects, events, or other circumstances where communication results, but usually dissipates for various reasons.

Facebook Groups gives us the ability to create nicheworks for the different audiences with which we’d like to communicate. And in many cases, other participants require the same group to collaborate.

As such, privacy is now a process of boundary management. It is in our control to define how much other people know about us, what they see, and the impressions they form.

Nicheworking with a Purpose

In 2007, I advised and helped launch a company focused on productivity and collaboration, but rather than focus on threads, it designed projects around transforming social networks. The company was later acquired and shuttered – within its first year of operation.  The reason I share this story with you is that it was very similar to how the new Facebook Groups approaches networking and collaboration.

Facebook Groups represents something much more meaningful than groups for idle chatter; they are platform for improving relationships, communication, and productivity in controlled environments.

When starting a group or project, you choose who you would like to invite and as such, create a dedicated social network (or a nichework) to host undistracted interaction.

In the past, Facebook has attempted to introduce what it referred to as “naive solutions” to facilitate social nicheworking. With the introduction of lists, according to Zuckerberg, less than 5 percent of users took advantage of this option. Groups reduces the barrier to entry and it keeps interaction and engagement focused on short term and long term tasks with those who define strong, weak or temporary ties and the degree of relationships we maintain around the different groups we host online and offline.

Groups represents the future of social networking. We can design groups where we communicate, collaborate, and co-create with purpose, whether it’s personally or professionally. But, for the time being, we can do so in a network we can learn, in real-time, how to take control of our online presence and the social graphs we choose to cultivate.

Please read this post for “All you need to know about Facebook Groups.”

Connect with Brian Solis on Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Facebook
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247 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Facebook Groups Give Rise to Social Nicheworking”

  1. That is a very interesting study. When I heard of the opt-out method with which Groups was ideated I kinda worried it would be another privacy hell, but I came to realize that after all this is the only meaningful way they could have possibly done it in order to make people actually use it.
    The fragmentation of our social life is well portrayed by the use of this new feature.

    • briansolis says:

      Indeed. It requires thoughtfulness and worthy intentions…I believe that each person would fundamentally become a stakeholder in order for the group to excel.

    • mbob says:

      Social engineering has never been easy. I'd say most tries have failed. Now it's become harder in the face of more “tribal” social units and fading “national” scale values. Hard and fast include/exclude protocols don't really mimic humans' fluid, changing relationships.

      Great diagrams. Thanks for putting out so much effort to start a discussion.

      And +1 for Ike's practical suggestion.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Brian,
    As always, this is a very thoughtful and detailed post. Love how you bring the human element of all of this into it. One of the questions I’m asking is how should organizations use groups? I am asking some of these questions over here (http://blog.memberhub.com/should-organizations-use-facebook-groups/) if anyone is interested. Thanks!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Brian,
    As always, this is a very thoughtful and detailed post. Love how you bring the human element of all of this into it. One of the questions I’m asking is how should organizations use groups? I am asking some of these questions over here (http://blog.memberhub.com/should-organizations-use-facebook-groups/) if anyone is interested. Thanks!

  4. Ike Pigott says:

    Brian…

    Groups may end up being huge, but Facebook needs to add one piece of functionality to make it fly.

    Right now, when I share a link or a status update, I have the option of sharing it with Lists or specific people. If I had the option to add that item to various lists within the main wall appliance at the top, it would be of greater value to me.

    If Facebook is truly interested in getting people to use Groups, then it needs to integrate Groups at the top of the content funnel.

    • briansolis says:

      Absolutely Ike, they're getting an earful from me and others and this is on the list. In the meantime, this post is also designed to start getting us to rethink how we use social networks today – with or without Groups.

  5. aslevin says:

    So, what happens once a user unsubscribes from a group and the inviter wants to invite them to something else. Does the invited person get to opt-in, or has the inviter lost their one chance to invite that person to anything ever again?

  6. Rich Reader says:

    One group/tie tool doesn't meet every need for anyone's nichework, but it's good to have usable tools to test so that our thinking can evolve, and then the tools can improve around user experience. Last week I created a group called Wine Aficionados primarily to help friends in a substantial number of wine-related roles interact beyond their daily geographic boundaries. Feedback is about 95% positive from the members, threads are growing on individual topics, and members are enrolling members. The upside is clearly winning in this case. Surely we all operate in many other niches that would not be such a naturally good fit. We live and learn.

  7. Rich Reader says:

    One group/tie tool doesn't meet every need for anyone's nichework, but it's good to have usable tools to test so that our thinking can evolve, and then the tools can improve around user experience. Last week I created a group called Wine Aficionados primarily to help friends in a substantial number of wine-related roles interact beyond their daily geographic boundaries. Feedback is about 95% positive from the members, threads are growing on individual topics, and members are enrolling members. The upside is clearly winning in this case. Surely we all operate in many other niches that would not be such a naturally good fit. We live and learn.

  8. briansolis says:

    It's also a form of self-preservation (social costs)…helping us help ourselves so to speak. These are interesting times and will evolve over time. We're learning as we go…

    More here: http://techcrunch.com/2010/10/07/conspiracies-privacy-spam-and-nambla-facebook-groups-are-fun/

  9. Jon Ferrara says:

    I loved Paul Adams Slides on 'The Real Life Social Network v2' & so did 300,000 others – http://ht.ly/2RItI

  10. HeatherO says:

    One of the greatest values of the groups that I see at this point is giving us the ability to be even more relevant. Having the ability to share info with those who want to receive it is huge. I set up secret groups in the past for group clients and the lack of notifications made it less than effective, and of course relying on someone who catch a post in the stream is unreliable.
    Practically speaking I think some will leave a group to avoid the notifications (because they don't know that they can change them) & then create issues w/future group participation.
    Another issue that I have seen is the 'instant messaging feel' of the wall. It's great, but I recently created a group of 2 close friends. We often “FB email” back and forth a LOT at night (think IM'ing but in email). I saw groups as a great way to keep it easier, and it was – at first! About 20 “comments” into the thread, FB shut them down! Blocked them from wall posting to be exact.
    This was based on the TOS of 'repetitive activity that users could find annoying”. I can only assume that I wasn't blocked because I was the creator.
    (Yes, group chat would've resolved this, but left us w/o a record of the convo.)
    Had this been a larger group, it could have been annoying to many, but in this case it was a big inconvenience. (Lesson learned: With all good things, come other things we have to live with 😉

  11. ZungTee898 says:

    Nice, that makes a lot of sense dude.

  12. Kyle Lacy says:

    I think it'll end up being really big for Facebook once it all gets worked out…all the kinks anyway.

  13. briansolis says:

    UPDATE: From Facebook…

    Once you leave a group, you can’t be added again by anyone to that specific group. This doesn’t change what your friend can or can’t do with regard to other groups. What's most important are the social norms around inviting friends to Groups that you point out in your post. Although people don’t lose the ability to add friends to other groups, they need consider the impact that adding a friend will have on that person.

    • aslevin says:

      Thanks for getting the update. Even this is a little too draconian. People's interests change and available time changes. Someone may not have time for a group one year, and have time and desire to participate the next. I think Facebook is going to need to add more flexibility to support how people live.

  14. Simon Salt says:

    Brian,
    I think you hit the nail on the head with this post, though I know you have said it before about the opportunity cost within social media. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. When Groups launched last week I laid a few bets with people as to how many groups containing the words “social media” would be created and how many of those would then contain you, Chris Brogan, Pete Cashmore, Guy Kawasaki, Jeremiah Owyang etc. by the end of the day. Some of these groups were simply people grandstanding and saying to the Facebook world “Look how important I am, I can add these people to my group”. i don't believe that is what Zuckerberg and team had in mind. During the launch they referenced Yahoo groups, I like to think of Facebook groups in that way. I like the simplicity based as it is on the Photo-tagging feature that Facebook already has. Someone tags a picture of you that you don't like – untag yourself, simple. Someone adds you to a group you don't want to be in, leave. For the minority, social media will always be a “look at me” device. For the rest I believe people understand or are at least coming to understand the opportunity cost of misusing the medium.

  15. TheRECoach says:

    “Credit where credit is do” Brian, though this post was impossible to read with the blue background and light text, and painfully long winded, you forced me to “Think” in a different way and to see (Perhaps?) what the effort by Facebook (following in Apple's footsteps, I would gather) to force an understanding of change could bring…I think it will bring us something quite positive when it is all said and done..

    Thanks

    TheRECoach

  16. Ray says:

    Brian,

    Great education here for the educators! I look forward to introducing you in New Orleans.

    Ray

  17. EXCELLENT article! Thank you Brian. Wise of you to let it settle in a bit.

    I DO wish that Facebook would work out the kinks in a new feature BEFORE they publish it to all Users. I’m sure many of us would be willing to participate in a Beta version.

    I don’t think anyone has addressed the feeling one might get if a creator names a group something like Geniuses, of course implying that they are Genius, and that everyone they invite is as well. Let’s call the invited person Susan. Susan glances at the Members. She spots at least one person she personally knows and is confident that person is in no way a Genius. Susan, of course, has no problem being labeled a Genius. Who would? But the group already feels a bit silly. Whatever happens after that insults somebody if handled rashly. The recipient is assigned to walk on eggshells.

    http://asklindasherman.com/new-facebook-groups-how-to-protect-yourself

  18. EXCELLENT article! Thank you Brian. Wise of you to let it settle in a bit.

    I DO wish that Facebook would work out the kinks in a new feature BEFORE they publish it to all Users. I’m sure many of us would be willing to participate in a Beta version.

    I don’t think anyone has addressed the feeling one might get if a creator names a group something like Geniuses, of course implying that they are Genius, and that everyone they invite is as well. Let’s call the invited person Susan. Susan glances at the Members. She spots at least one person she personally knows and is confident that person is in no way a Genius. Susan, of course, has no problem being labeled a Genius. Who would? But the group already feels a bit silly. Whatever happens after that insults somebody if handled rashly. The recipient is assigned to walk on eggshells.

    http://asklindasherman.com/new-facebook-groups-how-to-protect-yourself

  19. Scott Gould says:

    Great post Brian.

    I wrote about the same thing, linking Facebook and Paul's “Real Social Network” research.

    What I observe about the groups is they facilitate what I see as “communities within communities.” A community is built up of smaller sub communities, going right down to sizes of 6-7 at their lowest size.

    I'll be building on some of your points and mixing with Scoble's thougths on the subject.

    Best,
    Scott

  20. David Baeza says:

    Hey Brian. This is the best post I've read on the subject of FB Groups. Thorough and simple. Well done!

  21. Karen O'Brien says:

    Excellent overview of Facebook Groups Brian! Thank-you for this post. Like yourself I was frustrated by having to opt-out in the beginning but now I find myself thinking of all kinds of groups I'd like to start 🙂

  22. DonnaGilliland says:

    Brian, this is an insightful article well beyond just the insight into groups! Thank you.

  23. austin chang says:

    Great post and exactly what the premise of the Frid.ge is based on. Clusters of social graphs where people follow shared context and the people in there vs. people themselves.

    things starting/stopping is actually how people interact in real life…

  24. Esther Cho says:

    Brian,
    Thank you for this insightful summary on Facebook groups and social behavior. It's interesting how one has to opt-out rather than opt-in and how much more people need to consider the impact of adding a person into a group. The evolution of Facebook and the impact on its users is really a fascinating study.

  25. My head hurts! A good well thought out article.

  26. Thanks to @Jon-Ferrara's link to Paul Adams presentation. I agree with you Brian, it should be kept alive.

    Your article + Paul's slides + the Social Graph concept made it more clear to me. I think segmentation of your 'FB friends' into groups makes sense. I usually think of FB-groups in the context of Groups vs Page. The illustration of strong ties-weak ties is great.

  27. YPICommunications says:

    Three great posts — Facebook is surely on the move to connect us all in some way or another. I agree with the idea of sending a private invitation to join a group — most people just respond more favorably to that, then an automatic inclusion, especially if they're not interesting in connecting with others in the format. All in all, social networking has its positives, but our actions have to be thoughtful and responsible…

  28. Nicheworks — an interesting term. Proves that the web is quickly bending to a more user-centric model. Zuckerberg understands this. I love the message of accountability he is sending. We create our world. I firmly believe this. The web is now mirroring this back to us with the realtime tools. When will people believe it and take responsibility for their creations?

  29. Social Media is already a collection of nicheworks. Great for users, puzzling for the media buyers of yore. Quantity (of eyes) won't be preferable anymore. It will be a waste.

    Quality (of targeted eyes) is the new wave, and it matches the global economy. No more SUVs packed with cheap Chinese soccer balls marketed on TVs in every room of McMansions. Now it's going to be one premium-priced ball that will last you your whole life, and you heard about it on that soccer forum. Your friend posted this viral video ad he got from the company group he's in, and it got you thinking. A banner ad in the forum reminded you, and suddenly you were placing an order on Amazon.

  30. Excellent post that is stirring a lot of discussion within several Cincinnati Digital Marketing groups that I belong to. Love the slides from Paul Adam's study and especially like the 'Debbie' example. I facilitate a program for local schools and parenting organizations that focuses on Reputation Management and Social Networking Safety Training for parents. So many parent FBers forget that their kids and their friends have access to each other through the various settings exercised on Facebook. Really makes you think…..

    Brian, looking forward to meeting you at SummitUp in Dayton next Tuesday!

  31. Nice overview, but I am surprised you didn't mention what this will do to Ning, to me this feels like the nail on the coffin for them. Do you have any thoughts?

  32. Just a point here, if you have 10-yr-olds in your graph they are violating FB TOS, which requires you to be 13. That said, I would not want 13yo in my graph to see wild party photos either.

    My other concern about groups are the bad apples – a bully or perceived spammer. What if you get one in the group? Is there a way to get them out? It seems the only recourse is to report the entire group. Even if you started a group you have no control over who gets added from the “friends” you invited.

    Very interesting.

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  34. dotJenna says:

    I think Facebook should give us a little more credit than to force us to opt-out rather than opt-in. It's insulting our intelligence to think that the only way we'll adopt new technologies is to force us out of our comfort zones. This is not empirically proven, and does not constitute the best motivation strategy. Better would be a reward system… or anything!!!

    I'm not sure of the logic behind why Facebook forced the groups upon us in the beginning, as I'm sure it's caused many to shun the new feature altogether. I am sure, however, that the groups are POWERFUL. As a Facebook Marketer, I find that the new changes make Groups an absolutely necessary function for all who wish to engage purposefully on Facebook. While there is power in connection, there is even more power in organized, niche connection. I love the groups and will be incorporating them extensively into my own marketing, and that of my clients. 🙂

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