The overhaul of Facebook Groups last week builds on the ideals of the 1980s and early 1990s. It's only halfway there, though, as it has the potential to be something much bigger.
Back in the early 1990s, in the days when Internet connection speeds were measured in baud rates and the Netscape Navigator web browser didn't yet exist, I got my first taste of social media by participating in BBSs, or bulletin board systems. You connected to these text-based communities by dialing in directly to a terminal often hosted at the home of the system operator (the revered SysOp). Given the kinds of geeks who would participate, the system thrived on many-to-many communications; there wasn't much of a point being a spectator or lurker. Unlike many forums and groups online today, the content was only valuable for participants actively using a given BBS, as there wasn't any latent value such as creating content that others could find through search engines.
The many-to-many spirit is alive and well with Facebook Groups. Within a day or two of the new features launching, I became part of a half dozen groups focused on social media. Sure, they all opted me in automatically, and Facebook's "shoot first, ask users later" approach is problematic, but that's likely a temporary drawback. My first reaction to the new Groups was that it was a usable version of Google Wave, a sentiment echoed by many technologists. Dan Peguine, responding to a post I shared in a group called Social Marketers, compared Facebook Groups favorably with Yammer, noting the quick learning curve for both. As I dive in, trying group chats and contributing to collaborative documents, I keep thinking back to those BBS days. If you want to participate, it's easy to do so, and there are these hubs of constant activity that encourage everyone to keep contributing.
I'm willing to bet this is still an early phase of Facebook Groups. A much bigger phase is coming, one where Groups transitions from the era of the BBS to the era of BBM. In case your coworkers or college-aged kids haven't asked to BBM you, it stands for BlackBerry Messenger, perhaps the most successful mobile app of all time in that it has helped sell BlackBerry devices. BBM is itself a progenitor of other mobile communications services such as TextPlus, GroupMe, and SMS GupShup that let users create groups of people to text, allowing for mobile communities to form and interact on the fly.
It shouldn't be too hard for Facebook to add mobile functionality to Groups. Given Groups' text-heavy nature, it can work across Facebook's mobile offerings, spanning its smartphone applications, mobile sites optimized for touch-screens and feature phones, and even 0.facebook.com, the scaled-down site designed for countries where bandwidth is more limited. Facebook has SMS commands too, even if they're seldom publicized. To paraphrase Amsterdam Vallon in "Gangs of New York," "They ain't got a gang; they've got an army."
I was having a conversation with one peer working in social marketing, and he lamented that Facebook Groups isn't useful for brands, so there's not as much for us to do. There are two ways I'd counter that. First, anything that makes Facebook even more important for its users is good for those in the social marketing business. More importantly though, features like the Wall, photo sharing, and events all started for users and then became part of brand pages. Heck, marketers can't do much at all with Facebook Mobile right now, but its 150 million-strong user base clearly matters.
Facebook Groups will matter, too. It's a bridge to the BBS past that will build on the BBM present to create something even more meaningful in the future.