Facebook groups are forever

Brian Solis uncovered an interesting feature of Facebook groups – if you unsubscribe from a group, you cannot join it ever again. This is portrayed as a feature to improve the social dynamics of groups, by making people use care about which groups they invite others too, and which they expect.

Update: Actually, you cannot be re-invited to the group ever again. If it is an Open group, it’s possible that you can choose to rejoin it (if someone has tested this, please write in comments). But the inviter definitely can’t invite you again, which is awkward. And if it’s a private group, you’re stuck.

I find this policy much too draconian. As in other aspects of life, one’s time, availability and interests change. Perhaps you don’t have time to join a book club now, but your schedule changes in six months. Perhaps when your friend invites you to the “Save the Bay” group, you are not interested at first, but then you learn more and decide later that you want to participate. I understand that Facebook is trying make people use care when inviting others, but this seems extreme to me. There are very few decisions in life that are permanent, and choosing not to join a Facebook group should not be one of them!

Some people are speculating that Facebook groups will help Facebook compete with Twitter by providing more focused ways of sharing and discussing information. But this will certainly not happen if a user has only one chance to explore an interest before giving up on it forever.

Years ago, David Weinberger wrote beautifully about the importance of ambiguity in our real-life social networks. When someone asks you to lunch and you say that you are busy, it could mean that you would like to get together later, or that you don’t actually want to get together with this person very much. The ambiguity is expected, and the outcomes play out in repeated interactions over time. If somebody asks a few times with no response, they stop asking. There are many fewer situations in life where one wants or needs to say “don’t ask me ever again.” Facebook is eliminating the good ambiguity, skipping from “yes immediately” to “never again” with nothing in between.

One of the problems Facebook is seeking to minimize spam invitations – so an over-aggressive inviter can’t invite the same person over and over again. But there is a much simpler solution to this problem – allow a user to block the inviter or the group. Twitter has an excellent “block” and report for “spam” features – if you don’t want someone following you you can block them, and if someone sends you spam messages or their stream is clearly inappropriate you can report them. These features gives the control to users, without restricting their future choices.

Facebook has a difficult design challenge: make the system easy to use, encourage people to use the system responsibly, and support a wide enough array of social life well enough that it becomes a utility. Hopefully Facebook will see the light and make leaving a group more flexible, and provide better ways of severing ties when that’s needed.

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