Why Facebook Groups Will Revolutionize Social Networking

The secret to an enjoyable social networking experience is the ability to properly manage your content.  Better content management control equals a better experience.  Despite the fact that it originated from a user-unfriendly design that was aimed at college kids looking to poke (online or off) each other, Facebook finally seems to get this, and they are constantly introducing new features that will serve both Facebook’s purpose (internet domination) and ours (a better user experience).

As I was dragged, typing and clicking, onto Facebook (Friend me if we are), the first thing that struck me was the sheer volume of posts relating to Farmville and other similar nonsense.  For a while I was amazed at the amount of gibberish that crossed my screen.  It was almost as chaotic as Twitter (Follow me), except that nothing else can be that chaotic.

Facebook filters were the first and biggest step in my Facebook content management initiative.  In one or two clicks I can forever rid my stream of Farmville and all sorts of other so-called games that inspire so many seemingly sane people to obsessively hunt for and/or give away livestock and implements (or whatever one does in Farmville) while the developers of Farmville undoubtedly pinch themselves repetitively on their way to the bank.

Filters helped me avoid much of the bad stuff, but I wanted a way to find the good stuff.  Like most people, my list of Facebook “Friends” spans various segments of my real life.  I have hometown friends, college friends, local friends, and tech friends.  Lists allow us to separate content into buckets of people, but separating content by person doesn’t work very well.   For example, if one of my college friends says something interesting about a tech topic, I won’t see it if I’m reading my “Tech” list.

We needed a way to manage content by topic.  The recently released Facebook Groups feature gives us this.  It’s really early, but I think Facebook has hit a homerun with Groups.  Here’s why.

They Are Topic Based and Deeper

As noted above, segmenting your Facebook stream into buckets of people is not an elegant solution.  Groups, at least the ones I am involved in so far, are generally topic based.  My  favorite Group so far is a tech group, set up by one of my Facebook friends.  It allows me to quickly consume lots of good, non-spammy content written by people who are invested in the topic.  Additionally, it allows me to share information and interact with a lot of people who share the interest but are not my Facebook “Friends.”  As long as the Groups can be properly managed (more on that below), I think Groups will quickly become the go-to place to discuss topics on Facebook.

Being topic based also helps reduce the amount of other content which, while not quite Farmville-stupid, isn’t interesting to me.   I’m primarily talking about party-spoon-fed political hate-regurgitation (I’m really bored with all the Obama-bashing) and supposedly, but not really, uplifting quotes.  If I can tune my Facebook content like a TV channel, my Facebook experience will be more efficient and more enjoyable.

All of this makes me think Groups will very quickly become the default Facebook hangout for most people.

In fact, I think Groups will eventually become the backbone of Facebook, content-wise, design-wise and revenue-wise.  Think about what topic-based Group pages will mean for advertisers.  Sounds a little Google-like, huh?

There’s No Imported Content Which Leads to More Interaction

Unlike my main Facebook stream, where many people import content they create other places (such as Twitter), all of the content in Facebook Groups originates from within the group.  I have actually filtered out real-world friends on my main Facebook stream because so much of their content is imported that they don’t even see Comments and stuff.  If we can’t talk, then all you’re really doing is spamming me.  That is much less of a concern within Groups.

Meaningful interaction is the primary mover for much of the internet herd.  And it is about 100 times better in the main Facebook stream than on Twitter, and it’s about 10 times better in Facebook Groups than in the general Facebook stream.  That’s a lot.  Of content, interaction, and potential ad dollars.

There is the Potential for Proper Curation

Over time Facebook is going to have to give Group administrators a way to police members and probably even membership.  Years of online community building has taught me that there will be a segment of any group (lower or upper case) who only wants to harass and/or spam.  This is an absolute.  It will, at least initially, be less of a problem in “closed” Groups, like the tech group I am spending a lot of time reading, but it will be an issue for all Groups.  Probably sooner than later.

Note that I said “proper” curation.  The one thing that will drive me away from Groups and possibly Facebook as a whole is if Groups become like merit badges, and we end up in some new Gatekeeper controversy.  Proper curation should toss troublemakers out, but not serve as an implement of exclusion.

Done correctly, however, Facebook Groups can increase the quality of content geometrically.  Quality content, properly managed is the holy grail of online communities.

Facebook has some work to do, but I think Groups are going to be huge.

And About Google.Me (or Leave My Email Alone)

As a brief aside, the only other platform that has the potential to create this sort of curated interaction is Google Reader.  It’s too bad Google has largely abandoned Google Reader in its now redundant effort to create a content management tool inside of Gmail (which was obviously done to co-opt the huge Gmail user base).  I’m so in love with Chrome, that I’d try like hell to support any sane attempt by Google at social networking, but I am not optimistic that Google is going to present us with anything compelling.  My one hope (and remember this) is that Google.Me ends up embedded in Chrome (both the browser and the OS) instead of Gmail.  By itself, that won’t guarantee success, but it would be enough to make me take a long look.  And to pull for them.

Facebook Etiquette: Cruel to Be Kind, in the Wrong Measure

I’m a little punch drunk and heart sore after reading another example of narcissism, hatred and polarization in America***.  The lack of self-awareness and empathy in this country is epic, and saddening.  We need to relearn logic and civility.  We need less hate and more love.  Less anger and more kindness.  It sounds trite, but it is absolutely the truth.

Which leads me to Facebook (if we are, “Friend” me).  I have learned to live with Facebook’s nonsensical organizational and navigational structure in the name of meaningful and efficient social interaction.  Unlike Twitter, which I completely don’t get, there is actual social interaction to be had via Facebook, largely because the non-nerds have embraced it.  This is good.  We also need less nerdity, but that’s a topic for another day.

One of the reasons people flock to Facebook is because Facebook imposes some rules that, at least in theory, improve the experience.  In general, I agree with this.  But Facebook’s sense of etiquette is odd, in at least two ways.

We Need a “Dislike” Button

Why in the world isn’t there a native “Dislike” button for Facebook posts?  Is it really a breach of etiquette to disagree with something?  Are we a nation of sissies or what?  How in the world can you even have a conversation when the only possible responses are to say yes or give a sermon?

Like our polarizing society at large, there are a lot of haters on Facebook.  Much of the hate is politics based.  I haven’t been excited about politics since Jimmy Carter’s acceptance speech (what a great night that was) at the 1976 Democratic Convention, so I generally ignore political rants.

What my conscience won’t let me ignore is thinly disguised racism or hate masquerading as patriotism.  There are a lot of what, at first glance, look like religious and patriotic gestures on Facebook that are actually the opposite of both.  I badly need the ability to succinctly register my disapproval of that sort of thing.  A “Dislike” button would do that.  Without one, I have to either ignore something I find offensive or write a Comment expressing my disagreement.  Writing a Comment is much more confrontational than simply “Disliking” something.  Plus, having “Likes” and “Dislikes” would allow people to quickly gauge group sentiment on things.

The absence of a “Dislike” button, which seems to be an attempt to encourage civility, actually has the opposite effect.  We need a “Dislike” button.  Etiquette demands it.

It’s OK Not to Be Friends

Facebook seems to think that we all have really fragile karmas.  Otherwise, why wouldn’t there be an option to say say “No” to a “Friend” request?  Sure, you can now say “Not Now,” but as TechSpot points out, this results in the bizarre situation in which the rejecting person’s public posts show up in the rejected person’s stream.  You don’t have to suffer the horror of someone saying no, but you get to be constantly reminded that they did.  Crazy, no?

I recently sent a “Friend” request to Craig Newmark.  He and I are by no means real world friends, but we have emailed a few times over the years, and have a lot of mutual friends.  I thought he was getting unduly crapped on over the Craigslist thing, and decided to reach out.  Anyway, he didn’t accept my request, which is perfectly fine.  The problem was that, because I sent a “Friend” request to him, his public posts started showing up on my Facebook wall.  Since he and I are not Facebook “Friends,” I was not able to comment on those posts or join in the conversation.  In effect, I was being excluded from conversations on my own Facebook wall.  Since there is, for reasons that escape me, no easy way to withdraw a “Friend” request, I had to block Craig and then un-block him, just to go back to square one.  This is perfectly illogical and unnecessary.

It would be so much more efficient- and so much less offensive for everyone involved- if someone could just say no to a “Friend” request, and have the requesting person notified.  If your sense of self-worth is dependent on whether someone accepts your Facebook “Friend” request, maybe you should step away from the computer.  Heck, I’ve had lifelong real world friends un-“Friend” me, and I still manage to get up and live my life every day.

*** For the record, I largely agree with the points Mike is making, if not the way he chose to make them.  Having said that, I also think our government and economy is generally set up to favor the super-rich over everyone else, and if there is a tax increase (which would be fine if used for the right purposes), the super-rich will figure out a way to avoid or recoup much of their losses, in one way or another at the expense of the rest of us.  John Scalzi, author of one of my favorite books, has the best take on this latest brouhaha.

The Holy Grail of Social Network Sharing: Single Clicks, Native Shares & Clean Streams

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I’ve been thinking about the distribution of my content across the various social networks.  My challenge is to use the social networks in a way that benefits me and my readers, while keeping control of my brand and managing my content at a central, owned-by-me location.  That location being here at Newsome.Org, and my primary distribution tool being the “Send to” feature of Google Reader.  I consume 90% of my online content via Google Reader.

Networks I Use

At this point, I use two primary social networks.

I use Twitter (follow me, if you’re interested in hand-picked links to good tech, music and life articles) as a largely list-and-search-driven resource for third party content.  You simply have to rely on lists and saved searches to manage what would otherwise be complete chaos.   Via Twitter I  give (via my hand-curated “Interesting” links) and receive (via lists and saved searches) links to stories of interest.  In other words, the “what are you doing” Twitter updates are of very little interest to me (mostly because, as we’ll see in a moment, I find Facebook much better for that sort of thing), but the pointers to news articles and blog posts are very much of interest.

I use Facebook (Friend me, if we are)  as more of an interactive, conversation stream.  I find the connections between people on Facebook much more meaningful, and much more enjoyable, than on Twitter.  In other words, Twitter feels like an internet creation.  Facebook feels more like real life.

They are very different things.

How I Share

Which means that content producers like me need to carefully decide what parts of our content get pushed where.  Until today, I pushed all of my Twitter content into my Facebook stream.  Primarily, this was to get my curated “Interesting” links into both Twitter and Facebook, via a one-click “Send to” Google Reader process.

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I would send an item to Twitter, which in turn would be  sent to Facebook.  It worked, but it was noisy.  There was too much static on the line.

For example, when I publish a new blog post, it gets linked in my Twitter stream, via the WP to Twitter plug-in.  Then, in turn, it would show up on Facebook, the same way.   Like this.

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But Facebook’s native sharing process produces a much better stream entry, with a thumbnail, etc.  It looks less spammy and more elegant, giving a result like this.

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Duplication and Dirty Streams

Which meant that I had to either allow duplicate new blog post entries in my Facebook stream (bad) or manually delete the automatic Twitter posting and then re-post the item using the Facebook’s native sharing process (inefficient).  Ultimately, I found myself rushing to Facebook to delete certain Twitter-imported items and replacing them with native Facebook shared links.  I felt like George Jetson on the treadmill, with no Jane in sight.

Then I finally realized I was doing it backwards.

The interactive quality of my stream (both incoming and outgoing) is better and more valuable at Facebook.  So that’s where I need to use the most care.  I very much wish I could one-click export selected items from my Facebook stream to Twitter.  That would allow me to pick and choose the links and other content that I wanted to send over the Facebook walls, without having to clutter my Facebook stream with a bunch of imported content.  But you can’t do that.

Tossing Twitter Out of Facebook

So I decided to cut the cord.  As of today, my Twitter feed is no longer pushed to Facebook.  Rather, my curated “Interesting” links will continue to be the most valuable part of my Twitter stream, and any of them that I want to also share in my Facebook stream will have to be re-shared.  This double effort will serve as a mighty filter on my Facebook stream, which is good and bad.  Good because the quality of the content will be higher.  Bad because there will be some interesting stuff that never makes it into my Facebook stream.

Call Me Percival

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Which leads to the search for the holy grail.

What I want, but have not yet found, is a way to share content from Google Reader one of three ways:

1. To Twitter (can do this);

2. To Facebook (can do this); or

3.  To both simultaneously, but using each service’s native sharing API (cannot do this).

There needs to be a way to select, slice and dice and distribute content via a Google Reader “Send to” (or the equivalent), which will send the selected content to Twitter and Facebook, simultaneously and separately (without going into one and then being imported into the other).  Another, likely easier to develop, solution would be to create an application that only pushed certain content from Twitter to Facebook.  It would be rules based.  For example, I could create a rule that would push any Twitter post that starts with “Interesting:” to my Facebook stream, but would not push other Twitter posts.

For me, this is the holy grail of social network sharing.  I thought perhaps Ping.fm might be a vehicle to do this or something acceptably close, but I don’t see a way to push the same link through Ping.fm to Twitter as a Twitter post and to Facebook as a natively shared (as opposed to imported) item.  In other words, it seems my ability to push things from my Twitter stream to my Facebook stream is an “all or nothing” decision.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll have to share especially interesting items twice, in order to keep my Facebook stream clean.  But I’ll keep looking for the holy grail.  It’s out there somewhere, or will be one day.

Exposing the Fatal Flaw in Social Network Marketing

I read (via a link from Hutch Carpenter) with absolute glee today an article at the Harvard Business Review that points out what I and about 3 other voices have been screaming from the wilderness for years- customers don’t really want to “socialize” with companies:

Maybe customers are shifting toward self service because they don’t want a relationship with companies. While this secular trend could be explained away as just a change in consumers’ channel preferences, skeptics might argue that customers never wanted the kind of relationship that companies have always hoped for, and that self service now allows customers the “out” they’ve been looking for all along.

In fact, the trend has long been towards company avoidance, with two very different exceptions, which we’ll get to in a moment.

First, let’s look at how most people shop and consume today.

My Time is Not Your Money

Time is precious in this day and age.  I buy virtually all of my products, other than groceries, online.  Even at the grocery store, we are in the middle of a shift to self-checkout.  I thought that was an insane idea the first time I saw it.  Now I use it all the time.  It’s all about saving that precious commodity- time.

It takes a fraction of the time to buy a product online, and my goods get delivered to my doorstep.  Amazon Prime delivers by second-day mail.  I have found Apple and even Dell to be very fast shippers, with items often arriving even before the estimated date.  All of this gives me more time to do what I want to do, whether that’s make more money for me, or spend some extra time goofing off with my kids.

If you want to talk to me, in whatever capacity, that takes time.  Time that I probably don’t want to give you if the idea is to part me with my money.  The fact that I can read (or click, in the case of buying something online) faster than you can talk is why I get my news online and not on TV, and why I have never been into the video-blogging thing.  I want to consume information and goods at my pace, not yours.

Time being such a precious commodity, why in the world would people want to prolong the process they have to go through to get the goods they want?  In other words, people, even those who play Farmville, are smart enough to know that (a) some company who invades Facebook is there, ultimately, to make money off of them, and (b) time spent on some pseudo-conversation with a company representative (or likely a series of them) could be better spent looking for lost chickens (or whatever you do in Farmville).

The Tupperware Effect

I have never been to a tupperware party, OK?  But I know that the idea is to get a bunch of people you know together, have some sort of faux party and try to sell them something.  There are a million different versions of this “monetize your friends” angle.  The problem is that when you’re gathered in a circle talking about the newest Apple rumor and half the people are secretly trying to sell you a sandwich container, it’s only a matter of time until the conversation goes from iMacs to re-sealable sandwich holders.  In other words, the conversation quality is lower.  If you are only waiting for me to shut up so you can make your pitch, what’s the point?

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Art by Hugh

I’m clearly not the only one who feels this way.  Listen to Kathy Sierra talk about social networking at something called the Gov 2.0 Expo.

On TIVOs and DVRs

If I’m right- and I am- that all of this social network marketing is really just some new age, dressed-up advertising, then how long before the conscripted universe of potential customers rebels?  I have spent thousands of dollars on satellite TV, XM radio (though Mojo Nixon is in the process of single-handedly driving me away from it), TIVOs and the like, all in the name of ad-avoidance.  Hell, I just bought a season pass of the current Big Brother season, just to avoid having to fast-forward through the ads.  There are entire industries based on avoiding the very thing marketers want to subject us to.

It boggles my mind that so many people are betting so much on the infinite willingness of people to be marketed to.

Anyone Remember Email?

At the end of the day, most of this social networking business is just an email replacement that people use, generally on their own time, to communicate with friends and have fun.  Business, even if you try to disguise it, thrust into a goodtime is a buzz kill.  Period.  It’s spam 2.0.

If we react so negatively and passionately to spam in our email inbox, how can anyone expect us to allow spam in our social stream?

We won’t.  Because at the end of the day, people hate advertising.  They always have and they always will.

What About the Two Exceptions?

I’m glad you asked.  There are exactly two times when people will seek out contact with companies.  To get something cheaper and when something is broken.  These are very different situations, and only one of them is an opportunity for companies to improve their brand.

I don’t like coupons, and I hate rebates.  That whole business makes me feel like a lion standing in front of a burning hoop.  It would be more fun to bite the head off of the person expecting me to jump through it, but it would be easier (i.e., it would save me a few dollars) to jump.  No company has ever made me feel affection by offering me a coupon or a rebate.  Sure I may buy your product and fill in your stupid rebate form, but I’ll hate you for it.

The way to my heart is to forget marketing and just make a great product.

Product support is a different story.  When something breaks, I want to get it fixed, quickly (because, again, time is precious) and permanently.  There have been many instances in which a blog post here or a post on Twitter has resulted in a email from a support person offering assistance.  That makes me feel warm and fuzzy.  Your third request that I “Like” your Facebook page, not so much.

Companies should send their support department to the social networks, not the
ir marketing department.

The Bottom Line

People hate ads.  People want to buy things their way, on their terms and without a lot of hoopla.  Nothing is going to change this.  If companies want to improve their brand via the social networks, they have to stop trying to turn the internet into a giant tupperware party, and focus on giving customers what they really want- a great product with great support.

An Epidemic of Me-too-ism?

Back in the day, after I developed the original ACCBoards.Com (which later became a part of and was merged into what is now the Scout network of sports sites), saw my traffic shoot through the roof, partnered up with a TV network and a major cable company, and started getting some serious checks in the mail, I decided that I was an expert in all things communal.  And that I should expand my empire accordingly.

I started with SECForums.Com, an SEC sports site.  It never took off, and I don’t own that domain any longer.  Then I developed AVBoards.Com, for audio-video enthusiasts.  It started off strong, based almost solely on traffic diverted from ACCBoards.Com, then died almost as quickly.  I let that domain lapse last month.

Others followed, and while a few of them survived, none of them were a fraction as successful as ACCBoards.Com.  Why?  Because I didn’t have the passion, the industry connections or- most importantly- the timing that I had with ACCBoards.Com.

I was neither good nor lucky, and to be successful on the web, you have to be both.

Pretty quickly my little web empire became diluted, scattered and lost in a sea of existing, entrenched alternatives.  I stopped doing one thing well and started doing a lot of things poorly.

There was a lesson there, and it’s one I learned, albeit at some significant opportunity costs.

hatesharingIn light of all that, I was a little dismayed this week when I read that Facebook was launching a full-fledged email client, and it was soul-crushing to learn that Google is going to add Twitter-like social network features to Gmail.

A little dismayed over the Facebook thing, because I am a light user of Facebook, so nothing that happens over there is going to materially affect my life.

Completely bummed out by the Google thing, because I use Gmail every day, and whatever happens there definitely affects my life.

Here’s the thing. . .

image Facebook, you can’t invent Gmail because Gmail already exists.  Do what you do.  Let Gmail do what it does.

Google, you can’t invent Twitter because Twitter already exists.  Not to mention that there are a thousand better ways your development time and money could be spent.  Like improving the spotty integration of Google Apps, so they actually look and feel like a suite of apps, and not a bunch of unrelated products crammed ineffectively together.

Either make Google Apps a robust, business-ready tool, or make it an awesome toy.  Don’t create some crappy combination of both.

Google and Facebook, more than their peers, have a good track record of staying on course, even if that course isn’t readily apparent to the rest of us.  I’d like to believe there is a brilliant master plan in play here.

But I don’t.  I think it’s just a case of mass me-too-ism.

The Face(book) is Familiar

I’ve spent lots of blog space and podcast time pooping all over Facebook.  Saying how it is for kids, that it’s AOL 2.0, that it’s the internet kiddie pool.  I was right, and I was wrong.  Mostly wrong.

brawndoFacebook is all of those things, of course, but perhaps in an evolutionary- and not a pejorative- way.  More than anything else, Facebook is like Brawndo: it’s got what people crave.  Over time I have mostly capitulated to Facebook, simply because it’s the only path to a lot of people I want to interact with.  I create almost all of my content out here on the big, scary web, but I push a lot of it into Facebook.  And I visit Facebook several times a week to see what all the non-nerds are talking about.  Granted, there’s a lot of talking over each other, but there’s a little interaction.  Which is more than you can say for Twitter.

With all that, I started to wonder just what makes Facebook so popular.

It’s partly the ready-made platform to connect with other people.  It’s partly momentum.  It’s partly that MySpace sucks so completely.

But mostly I think it’s the names.  You know, those things beside the users’ photographs.  One thing Facebook got totally right is the absence of anonymity.  Anonymity is like cars- it brings out the inner asshole in people.  It has killed before, and given the chance would do so again.

Anonymity, with a helping hand from Google, killed newsgroups.  Those of us who have been on the internet long enough to remember when news readers were for reading Usenet posts, as opposed to RSS feeds, miss the days of the old-school newsgroup.  It was all kinds of good, until anonymous assholes and spammers killed it.  I haven’t read a Usenet newsgroup in years, and don’t even have a news(group) reader on my computer.

image Then came the message boards.  For a decade or so, message boards proudly carried the banner of online interactivity.  The combination of better technology and community moderation generally kept the spam under control.  But a large population of anonymous users first diluted the perceived content value of message board sites to the point that advertisers stopped buying ads, and ultimately destroyed the entire message board culture, via bad information, bad behavior and general mayhem.  All of which could be doled out at will without fear of reprisal because of anonymity.  Sissies grow giant stones behind the safety of a windshield or a message board handle.  It’s gotten so bad that I don’t even frequent the message board sites I founded.  Rather, I create Google alerts or FriendFeed pages for topics I’m interested in.  It’s not as fun as the old message board days, but it’s better than watching a revolving group of anonymous jerks litter my screen with nonsense.

Meanwhile, over at Facebook, people are sharing information under their real names.  Sure, you can create a fake identity and set up a Facebook account, but users who are prudent with their Friends lists can easily avoid most screen clutter.  You generally know who you are talking to.  With a name comes accountability, and there is a direct correlation between accountability and behavior.  All of which creates a better experience for the users.  Which draws more users and, in turn, more advertisers.  Ultimately you have digital high tide that raises all ships.

Which is why I ended up  with the rest of the world on Facebook.  Even if I still find it vaguely embarrassing.