Facebook groups – design flaws in social scaling

I am very glad to see Facebook launch better groups. But the implementation has some serious social design flaws.

Groups are very valuable in signifying the social context in which people feel comfortable sharing. Even when information is not private or secret, people use social group context to choose what and how to share. It is not a secret that I went to services on Yom Kippur, but I have no interest in boring and annoying friends or family who are indifferent, or triggering debate with beloved friends or family consider it brain-damaged and harmful, or radical and heretical, as the case may be. (This is why Stowe Boyd, who has insightful things to say about privacy, publicy, and the social construction of identity, is wrong about his hypothesis that defined groups are obsolete. And for Stowe, I’ll be happy to discuss religion over beer).

But Facebook’s implementation has a few serious social design flaws. The first is the invitation model. In default “closed” group, anyone can invite anyone else. In familiar groups tools like Yahoo Groups and Google Groups, there is a configurable, delegatable administration model. An administrator can be in charge of inviting new people, can delegate the ability to invite to others, or open up for anyone to invite, or open for anyone to join.

Facebook’s only choice is for members to be able to invite other members. Facebook’s theory is that social pressure will cause the right thing to happen without any additional controls. This is going to be a… very interesting social experiment to run in real time, as Oliver Chiang observes at Forbes. I suspect there are many situations where this is going to work out just fine, and many other situations where this will lead to problems. The best result is that groups will negotiate ways of setting their own norms, regardless of the features of the product. The least harmful result is that groups will evolve in ways that some members don’t like and they will quietly leave. A more harmful result would be frequent dissension leading to splintering, due to the lack of basic capabilities for member moderation. With inviting, I don’t think Facebook offers enough feature affordances to handle basic group needs. Facebook, of course, doesn’t cause group boundary setting problems. Those issues exist with human groups, regardless of the tools they use. But tools can make things easier or harder, and Facebook’s making it harder.

The invitation model also has visibility and consent problems. When you are invited to a group, you are immediately added, and that addition is visible to your friends, if the group is public or closed. This opens the door for mischief and awkwardness. A “friend” can add me to the “buddies of Sarah Palin” group, and that’s visible to all of my friends immediately. I need to go back in and unjoin the group, but the damage is done. There’s another problem with invitations. When someone is invited to a closed group, that invitation is visible to the invitee’s friends who haven’t been invited, and have no way to join. Socially awkward.

The next big flaw is in Facebook’s handling of the inevitable problems of social scale. When groups get above 150 or so people, larger than the level where people know and recognize each other personally, there are new risks. Discussions can be become chaotic, and civility can break down. Facebook’s solution is that when groups start getting over a certain size, they automatically disable chat and unspecified other features. While it’s harder to keep a group civil as it grows, it’s not impossible. The most important differences are facilitation, moderation, “tummeling” – the practices that foster humane conversation and avoid the tragedy of the commons. And culture – small groups can be nasty and fractious, and larger groups can be warm and friendly – a culture needs to be established and passed on by its members. There are some features that become more important at a large scale too – tools to help members moderate each other and help tummlers facilitate. Facebook shouldn’t be peremptorily making these decisions for a group when they get above N+1 members.

One of the important aspects in the design of group software is how to handle aspects of social scaling. Facebook makes mistakes in the tools they give users to manage the process of growth, and they make more mistakes in managing the results of growth. This is a new feature set, and Facebook has plenty of opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

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