Oops! Facebook's New Groups Feature is a Spam Machine

Last Updated Oct 8, 2010 9:20 AM EDT

On Wednesday Facebook introduced an overhaul of its Groups feature, allowing users to share status updates and messages with certain clusters of people while keeping others in the dark. As my colleague Erik Sherman pointed out, it's a great way to separate your work and play lives while still putting every detail of your life on Facebook. But because the social networking giant seems to have a pathological disdain for making features opt-in, the new Groups has become a way to conscript unwilling participants to obnoxious spam lists.

The problem is that any user can create a group and add any number of their friends to it. Founder Mark Zuckerberg sees this as solving a fundamental flaw in his developing social graph. Only 5% of users had created a "friends list", an earlier feature that organized friends. This is leaving a lot of connections poorly defined. I have over 600 friends, but some of them are dear friends, some co-workers and some I barely know.

The new feature is designed to make the process of dividing people into more organized groups easier and more addictive. "I can see 80 percent coverage over time," Zuckerberg said. "A relatively small percentage of the user base should get it done for everyone."

Not everyone is finding it enjoyable to suddenly become a certified member of a group they never considered or were asked to join. As Nitasha Tisku at Daily Intel points out, this is the Orwellian inversion of Groucho Marx famous line, "I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member."

In some cases this can result in users being embarrassing new affiliations, like when TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington made his Facebook friend Mark Zuckerberg a member of the North American Man Boy Love Association.

A more serious issue is that users have found themselves on the receiving end of tons of unwanted email -- just the kind of mistake a rookie web service would make. As blogging pioneer Anil Dash tweeted, "Oh, Facebook. I wanted to like groups, but now I'm on 50 unwanted email lists."

In both these cases, of course, users can simply leave the group. Part of Mark Zuckerberg's genius is that he always seems to know just how far to push the boundaries of privacy. In the near future users may simply accept the task of leaving unwanted groups the way they now de-tag unwanted photos. But unless Facebook gives users the ability control this new source of email, their groups feature will never complete Zuck's dream of filling in the dark spaces in the social graph.

Image from Wikicommons
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  • Ben Popper

    Ben Popper writes at the intersection of culture and technology. His work has been published in the NY Times, Washington Post, Fast Company, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and many others. He lives at www.benpopper.com.