Now that I've had a full 20 hours to process Facebook's latest announced changes, here's my takeaway: the moves are Facebook's recognition that it is a network, but a network full of individuals. As Mark Zuckerberg (you know who he is, right?) said on the Facebook blog yesterday: "The biggest problem in social networking is helping you easily interact with your friends and share information in lots of different contexts."
Actually, to some extent, this is Facebook's problem, and maybe Twitter's, but a problem the people at Google Buzz can only dream about having. (Special bonus joke for social media intelligentsia!) As my description of Facebook as "a network full of individuals" implies, it's a delicate dance, which has to be carefully choreographed. But at 500 million users, Facebook realizes that the way to be all things to all people is to not only give them control, but make that control easy. That's essentially what these new features do.
In case you missed it, here's a rundown:
1) New Groups, which should make it easier to get around the vexing I-don't-want-my-grandmother-or-my-boss-to-know-I-was-a-lush-in-college problem. Now, it will be simple to siphon off groups into family, friends, co-workers, high school crushes and so forth.
2) The ability to download every keystroke and posted picture you've ever input on Facebook. This could be described as the "Yes, you can-take-it-with-you" feature. An obvious response to the brouhaha of several years back about who owns the content posted on Facebook, this provides an extra layer of comfort to people concerned about controlling their personal information -- which is most of us.
3) A dashboard that gives every user insight into what applications they're using and what information of theirs each app has access to. I'm not an engineer -- nor do I play one in this column -- but my suspicion is that Facebook has probably had this information for some time, and realized, in the spirit of giving users additional control, it was high time to throw up the window shades on this and let the members in.
The result, obviously, is a much higher degree of control and individual access to what is going on inside one's Facebook account - an innovation that is much more important than the rollout of Facebook Places, frankly. It's actually interesting, in hindsight, to see how focused the rumor mill was, before yesterday's announcement, on redesigns, Skype partnerships, Facebook Phones and so forth, as if we've all come to think of Facebook as only looking forward, while never taking a moment -- unless hounded by users -- to look backward and rethink certain fundamental ways the site works.
But these changes are also an acknowledgment of just how big Facebook is; it's now a site that covers all demographics, dozens of countries, and millions of interests, which means that fewer and fewer of us have a roster of Facebook friends that can neatly fit into one group. There are times when it's fun to include everyone in a thread of comments - particularly, as I experienced earlier this week, when it's your birthday (hint!), and all manner of people, from former co-workers to college friends to neighbors, piles on in a communal birthday card. But there are lots of other times, like when someone wants to post pictures of their kids, where doing so in a more private setting might be appropriate.
It's not obvious on the, well, face of it, but by making these moves Facebook can only become bigger, in both users and the amount of use the site gets. Back when MySpace was a true rival to Facebook, I doubt Facebook would have had the nerve to make its users' data portable. That would make it too easy to pick up and leave. Now, it's reassuring to know that users can take it with them -- but where would they go when Facebook is where everybody is?
You can also expect more usage of Facebook as the new Groups kick in. Even though I'm a woman of few secrets, there are many times when I've thought twice before posting something -- mostly because it gets hard to remember just whom I'm sharing things with. With that problem lifted, Facebook will get bigger -- ironically enough -- by letting us connect with each other on a smaller scale.
(BTW, you know how Zuckerberg says he wasn't going to see "The Social Network"? Well, he did. )