Things you post on Facebook have a way of reaching more people than you want. Now the site has…

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Oct. 7 2010 5:30 PM

Didn't Mean for You To See That, Grandma

Things you post on Facebook have a way of reaching more people than you want. Now the site has a solution.

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This could create some awkwardness—say you create a group of junior managers at your firm, and then some brown-noser goes and adds a senior manager. That would cause everyone else in the group to clam up. Zuckerberg concedes that this sort of thing could cause trouble, but he and other Facebook reps suggest this kind of thing won't happen too often. If online groups mimic real-life groups, then anyone in a certain group would understand the social boundaries of that group—who should be added, what you can say there, etc. So while it's technically possible for someone to add your mom to a group of your frat brothers, that's probably not going to happen.

Facebook isn't the only tech company that has wrestled with the audience problem. Earlier this year, Paul Adams, a "user experience" researcher at Google, gave a fascinating presentation at a Web design conference about just this issue. The presentation suggested that Google—which has long been rumored to be building a social network meant to topple Facebook—has done a lot of deep research into how people map out their social networks. For instance, Adams and his team have asked people in many different countries to draw their social networks using colored pens and Post-It notes; across all these sessions, he discovered that most people tend to divide their networks into 4 to 6 groups of 10 people or fewer. Some observers took Adams' presentation to be a clue about how Google would take Facebook on—by building a social network that hews more closely to our small, fluid groups of friends.

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Facebook's new Groups feature could be a strong defense against that threat. By giving people a better way to divide their networks into small sets, Facebook has remade its network into something that will ideally be much less annoying to use. What's fascinating, though, is the way it went about solving this problem. During his press conference announcing Groups, Zuckerberg first described two other solutions that his team had considered. One idea was to build a better interface for people to manage their lists—what he called a "product solution." Another option was to use computers to scan through your networks and automatically categorize your different groups—the "algorithmic solution." In Silicon Valley, there are two companies already associated with each of these strategies; Apple likes to solves problems with better design, while Google is fond of solving things with equations.

Facebook, Zuckerberg says, is sketching out a new way of solving problems in the tech world—what he calls the "social solution." Although he stressed that Facebook employs many talented engineers and designers, the company's "go-to strategy" for tackling big tech problems will involve harnessing the minds of its hundreds of millions of users. How does Facebook identify faces in photos, and how does it translate its pages for people around the world, and how does it define our real-world cliques? Not by using artificial intelligence; instead it gets real people to do it. In other words, actual intelligence.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.