Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduced three new functions that would be rolling out on the social network over the next few days, the most significant of which is a ground-up re-imagining of the way the Social Graf is organized, which will, in ways, attempt to mirror the way the real world and relationships actually work. He, and key company product managers, pitched the new Groups product as a solution to the biggest problem in social networking: Getting baby picture updates from people you don't care about at all.
A long-time complaint that many users (and people who refuse to become users) have had with Facebook is that in the real world there is no one type of "friend." The fundamental problem of Facebook was also the premise of Facebook. Nobody actually has 5,000 friends.
"The basic issue is this," explained Zuckerberg. "One of the great things that Facebook has enabled people to do is connect with all their friends and stay connected with all of them all at once, but in reality, people's social worlds don't look like one big thing."
The goal of Groups (not to be confused with the existing Groups function) is to create simple and natural divisions among users' blob of "friends." It's an upgrade that would change the fundamental way people use Facebook, the team promised.
Facebook came out from its self-imposed 60-day "lockdown" swinging.
At one point, Zuckerberg seemed to address rivals such as Apple, Microsoft and Google (whose attempts to socialize its products have gone far from smoothly). He positioned Facebook, which he called a "hardcore tech company," as at least the equal of those behemoths. "What we are trying to do here is build a social platform, which is fundamentally different than building a social application," he said, further explaining that Facebook itself is building a platform along the lines of the PC or mobile.
"If this was a product or interface problem, some other company would have solved it; if it was algorithmic, some other company would have solved it; but because it's a social problem, we solved it," Zuckerberg declared.
Whether or not the problem is solved is still up for debate, and no doubt, the social network's 500 million users will waste no time in weighing in.
"We think this will end up being one of the fundamental building blocks for social platforms," Zuckerberg continued, before explaining some of the details and handing the microphone over to Groups product manager, Justin Shaffer, who came to Facebook when it acquired Hot Potato, which he founded.
Groups does not rely on any of the solutions Zuckerberg ticked off, but combines all of them, and will be built similar to the way a page of photos of a person is built. Whether or not a user uploads photos, there's a good chance they are represented. In fact, Zuckerberg said that 95 percent of people on the social net have photos of themselves on Facebook that they have allowed friends to tag. In this way, not everyone has to create all of their own clusters of friends from scratch to be included.
The Friends list function on Facebook, in which individual users had created their own personal groupings, exists already (and will continue to exist) -- but, said Zuckerberg, only 5 percent of users ever made a list, and one user making a list benefits no other user. At 500 million users, this still amounts to tens of millions of Lists (hence why the function is not going away), but by Zuckerberg's calculations, the new feature should sweep up about 80 percent of users.
The CEO was oh-so-careful to say that Facebook does not want to tell users who their friends are, as he explained how the algorithm that parses users' News Feeds and chat lists take care not to represent that. The Groups function will use similar algorithms to suggest groups to join, but the clusters will be based on the users' interactions on Facebook (think "family," "work friends" and "cycling friends", for example) as well as invitations from group members. All group members will be notified about who joined a group and how they got invited, so the question "Hey, who brought the loud guy?" will no longer be relegated to cocktail parties (and everyone in the group will know the answer). Any member of a group can leave at any time. Groups may be set to "Open," "Closed," or "Secret" -- each with a different level of access for those not in the group (other users can see only the names and members in Closed groups, and Secret groups are visible only to members). To start, Groups will default to Closed.
"If we could design a solution to the groups problem, it would look more like a space and less like a filter on your news feed," said Shaffer.
Some of the primary functions of groups will be shared spaces (a page where the group can "gather"), group chat, and email lists. Event invites and other Facebook features will also be incorporated and streamlined. Groups are designed to work best in small (from 25 to 50 users on up to 100 or 200 users) natural clusters.
The new Groups will work across an array of Apps and Facebook functions as well as with outside Web sites using Facebook Connect functionality. Shaffer said Facebook would also release the Graph API for Groups, allowing third-party developers to build on top of it.
Zuckerberg and co. also announced a straightforward function called Download Your Information (which, as the name implies, provides users a zip of all the content -- from wall posts to photos and videos -- they have put into the social network) and upgrades to the dashboard that give users more control over their information and how Facebook Connect apps interact with their profiles (as well as, for the first time, tools for users to monitor what information Connected apps are actually utilizing).
The new level of transparency will, of course, benefit users, "but also has a positive impact on developers," said Zuckerberg, somewhat hopefully. "They'll be much more judicious about what permissions they access."