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.

Mark Zuckerberg. Click image to expand.
Mark Zuckerberg.

What's the biggest problem with Facebook? What do you find most annoying about the site? Given all the reader mail that I get about Facebook, I'm willing to bet that your main gripe is a very common one. I'll call it the Not Everyone's Business problem.

The NEB problem is a cousin of Too Much Information—things that one really ought to keep to themselves and off the Internet. NEB is for things you only want to share with your real friends, not all your Facebook friends. Say you've just returned from vacation, and now you'd like to share your photos with your family and close friends. But you worry about posting them to Facebook, because you really don't want all your coworkers seeing you lounging on the French Riviera—a classic case of NEB. Or maybe you're a seventh-grade teacher and your students—and their parents—are constantly trying to friend you. That would be OK, except that your former frat brothers often take to your Facebook wall with NEB reminiscences about the time you stole that tractor after a power hour. And NEB goes both ways—the people in your Facebook network are always telling you too much about themselves. You liked that one guy in accounting until you discovered he's a huge Glenn Beck fan. Your brother's fiancee seems like a wonderful lady, but why does she keep posting about her shopping sprees at fancy department stores? It would be fine for her to notify her close friends of a run at Chanel, but do you really need to know about it?

Mark Zuckerberg, the site's founder, tells Slate that every time the site becomes embroiled in a dust-up over privacy, a lot of people ask why Facebook doesn't just automatically restrict all our information to just our friends. But that question doesn't recognize the complexity of our real-life social networks, Zuckerberg says. "If you have a few hundred friends, Friends Only isn't that private. A lot of the time when you want to keep something private, the people you want to keep it private from are among your 300 friends," he said. Zuckerberg and others at Facebook have their own name for the NEB problem: "We call it the 'audience problem,'" he says, and for Facebook, it's a very big deal. Coming up with a way for people to share information with some but not all of their online friends is "the biggest problem in social networking," he says. And until now, there was just no good way to do it.

This week Facebook announced a new feature that could go a long way toward solving the audience problem. It's called Groups, and it's a simple way to do something that has long been a pain in social networking—divide your network into small subnetworks that mimic your real-life relationships. You can set up a group for your family, one for your coworkers, one for your college buddies, and one for your knitting club; then, you can selectively share all kinds of information—photos, events, status updates, etc.—with each of those groups. You can even conduct real-time instant-messaging sessions and edit online documents with people in the group. In other words, your Facebook profile is no longer a single monolithic version of you—you can expose different parts to different people, which is much closer to how people maintain their identities in the real world.

This might sound familiar. For years, Facebook has offered a feature called Friend Lists that lets you set up subgroups in your network. But Friend Lists were a chore; because your social network is dynamic, with new people constantly shifting in and out of different categories in your network, it took a lot of work to keep your lists straight. Even though Facebook has tried to promote the feature heavily, only 5 percent of members regularly use lists, Zuckerberg says. Anecdotal evidence suggests that others take more onerous steps to keeping their different real-life networks separate—they maintain different Facebook accounts (I've got several teacher friends whose Facebook profiles list them under pseudonyms), they censor themselves, or they engage in what the social networking researcher Danah Boyd calls "social steganography," the practice of saying one thing that can be interpreted differently by different people in your social network. ("Sarah Palin is a piece of work!" you might post on your Wall—pleasing both your lefty friends and your Tea Party in-laws.)

There's one important innovation in Groups that makes it much better than Friend Lists—it relies on your friends to create groups for you. If you wanted to set up a subgroup of high-school classmates in the old days, you would have had to scan through your hundreds of friends and click on each one from your alma mater. Groups lets other people do the tagging. Now all you have to do is set up a group and add some of your high-school classmates. Each of them is free to add other people to the group. In this way, your high school list will be quickly populated by your classmates—and you wouldn't have had to do the categorizing. In fact, you might not have to do any work at all; once Groups rolls out to all Facebook users over the next few weeks, you can bet that some of your more manic friends will start tagging you in all kinds of groups, creating an instant taxonomy of your network. How do we know this will happen? Because a small percentage of users are crazy about tagging, and you can count on them to cover the rest of us. For instance, most Facebook users don't regularly upload photos—but 95 percent of Facebook users have been tagged in a photo by other people.

Of course, this tagging obsession sometimes creates problems—people tagging you in photos you'd rather not broadcast to your friends, for instance. We'll likely see the same problem in Groups, too. But Facebook has an elegant solution for it. If you're tagged in a group that you don't want to belong to, all you have to do is leave—people won't be able to add you to that group again unless you affirmatively ask to join it. Another potential problem with Groups is imprecision. With Friend Lists, you can decide exactly which people you want to share a certain post with. But because anyone in a Group can add other people to it, there may be some people there that you wouldn't have added.

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.

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.