Well, that was simple enough. In launching improved, automated Lists of friends, Facebook has easily -- and almost without notice -- exploited Google+'s biggest advantage: that it makes grouping friends the default, and sharing with discreet groups of people clickably easy. (Oh, God, that sounds like part of a future tagline.)
Because of Google+, Facebook has finally started the slow process of helping people manage their often unwieldy friends lists. To quote from Facebook's blog: "Each of your lists has its own News Feed, where you can see just the photos, status updates and other posts from the people on the list. To view list News Feeds, look for the Lists section on the left side of your homepage and click the list you want to see."
As at least one commenter joked on the Facebook blog, "This is Facebook+?"
I'm surprised that this tweak to how Facebook works, which was posted on the Facebook blog just yesterday, hasn't gotten that much notice. Maybe it's because some of the news leaked last week; maybe it's because it doesn't seem to be up and running yet -- at least in my little Facebook universe. Or maybe people just aren't paying attention.
Still, this is important for at least two reasons: One, as said before, it exploits the biggest advantage of Google+, and two (this is a biggie): it's automated. In the handful of months that Google+ has been out in private beta, one thought I keep hearing is what a pain it would be to go back through your Facebook friends -- the average American has about 225 of them -- and assign them into groups, even if it sounds desirable.
But, duh. Facebook knows a lot of who's grouped with whom already, so it is doing the heavy lifting for us by automating the list-making process; whether you use your Lists or not is up to you. In addition to using the profile information we give it -- like our high school and graduation year, for example -- Facebook already knows who hangs out with whom. While I suspect Facebook will get some of this wrong -- by grouping unrelated Taylors into my Family List, for example -- making it automated neatly skirts the problem of users having to create Lists. (The list of Close Friends is not automated, and will be strictly DIY.)
So Facebook just copied Google+. So what?
Maybe that's the right response. But where this could get interesting for marketers is if, over time, Lists fundamentally change who we share things with. As with Google+, users can click on a tab below each status update to determine who to share it with -- co-workers, family, neighbors, the greater public and so forth. It's easy to do. And if that behavior starts to catch on, it will change the nature of the News Feed, the stream so many marketers want to swim in.
Right now, people share the overwhelming majority of their status updates with all of their friends, serving as a most powerful amplifier of word-of-mouth. But what if that changes? What if people start routinely sharing status updates, photos and other content with smaller groups? You may think that people won't do this, but I truly think the main reason people on Facebook share everything with everyone is because Facebook was built that way, not because they want to.
Maybe this move will mean that sharing within Lists will make word-of-mouth more refined, quality over quantity. On the other hand, I've never heard someone in charge of a viral marketing effort say that what they are really after is micro-targeting. Facebook may not care about this, since more discerning sharing of status updates will enhance its ability to target paid advertising. However, for marketers -- many of whom view earned media as the most valuable media of all -- this could end up being a monumental, and negative, change. By and large, they'd prefer that everyone share with all of their friends, not their ten friends from work or the fifteen people on their Family List.
My guess is that, in improving and automating Lists, Facebook didn't dwell on such things. Especially if you follow the Silicon Valley dictum that all profits flow from a good user experience, it had to make this most obvious change, and its impact will be felt slowly enough for Facebook to adjust. But as a marketer, I would watch this development closely, to see if an evolution in social sharing is at hand.