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Saturday, October 9, 2010

Five questions — and answers — about Facebook Groups

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Fri Oct 8, 7:28 pm ET

Another week, another Facebook controversy — this time, over the site’s just-relaunched "Groups" feature, which lets you create instant private or public spaces for your friends, co-workers, fellow hobbyists, you name it.

Personally, I think the idea behind the new Groups feature is an excellent one. By designating smaller circles of friends within your overall list of Facebook pals (which, for some online social butterflies, can easily run into the thousands), you can post updates, photos, videos, and URLs to your individual subsets without bothering everyone on Facebook with the minutiae of, say, your breakfast menu, or how quickly you crossed the finish line in your latest half-marathon.

Indeed, I might start actually posting to Facebook again now that I’ve created a tiny group of friends (three, to be exact) who (a) I trust, and (b) won’t be annoyed by any pointless musings that I'll be tacking onto our wall. (Uh, guys — you don’t mind, right?)

But it didn’t take long for a controversy to flare up: namely, the fact that your Facebook friends can add you to any group they so choose — as long as they’re already members of said group — without your permission.

Why did Facebook make Groups go the "opt-out" rather than "opt-in" way? "To make the product simple" is the official line. Another likely reason for the policy, I’m guesssing, is that it encourages the rapid growth of ... well, new groups. Without the necessity of waiting for invitees to accept an invite, Facebook’s groups are free to grow quickly and exponentially. The more — and bigger — groups there are, the more Facebook members will use them — and that’ll make groups more attractive to app developers and advertisers. Hey, that’s business, like it or not.

Of course, the downside is that you might find yourself suddenly signed up into a Facebook group (or groups) you hadn’t bargained for, such as the "Underwater Basket-weavers of America," with your inbox suddenly flooded with email notifications for each and every snapshot, comment, and update posted to the collective group wall.

That’s a side-effect I’d count as more of an annoyance than anything else, although there’s always the more worrisome possibility that one of your frenemies will add you to a group of a more, ah, unsavory nature.

So, here are five questions — and answers — for how to weather the current Facebook Groups storm (or tempest in a teapot, depending on how you look at it).

1. Who can add me to a Facebook group?
Not just anyone can add you to a group — in fact, only someone who’s already one of your Facebook friends can do so. Still, it’s a bit disturbing that any of your Facebook friends can add you to, say, the "Bald Eagle Hunters Club" without getting your permission.

Then again, your friend would already have to be a "BEHC" member before he or she could invite you to the group ... and besides, who is this so-called friend, anyway? Indeed, the story that sparked this whole debate about the Groups feature involves someone with more than 4,000 Facebook friends. I don’t think I’ve even met 4,000 people in my 41 years on Planet Earth, much less know 4,000 people whom I’d be willing to "friend" on Facebook.

Suggestion: If you’re seriously worried about people adding you to groups that you’d rather not be a member of, maybe it’s time to pare down your Facebook friends list, starting with anyone who added you to a group you didn’t want to be a member of. The "Remove from Friends" button can be, in fact, your friend.

2. How do I leave a group — and prevent someone from adding me again?
Wait — so, you didn’t want to be a member of the "Underwater Basket-weavers of America"? Just visit the group page, click on the "Leave Group" link under the list of members, and you’re outta there — simple. After that, no one will be able to re-add you to the group in question without your explicit permission.

3. But even if I remove myself from a group, won’t the fact that I got added in the first place pop up in my Facebook news feed, for all to see?
Yep, you’re right. You can always delete the notification from your wall, but that won’t stop your Facebook friends or other users (depending on your privacy settings) from seeing the update before you were able to delete it.

One proactive (if extreme) measure, is to deny the Groups app permission to publish stories to your wall; just click on Account on the top-right of the Facebook interface, then select Application Settings. Find the Groups app, click Edit Settings, then click the "Additional Permissions" tab (almost there), and, finally, uncheck the box that reads "publish content to my wall."

4. How do I cut down on all these email notifications from my groups?
Getting inundated with a flood of email messages every time someone posts a "Cute photo!" comment onto a group snapshot can quickly grow tiresome. If you’d like to keep your inbox as uncluttered as possible, just tweak your Groups notification settings: Visit the specific group page, click the "Edit Settings button" in the upper-left-hand corner of the page, and select the radio button next to the option you prefer (for example, you can get a notification each and every time a member posts or comments, only when a friend posts, or only when someone comments on one of your posts). You can also visit the email notification page in your privacy settings and turn off all notifications if you wish.

5. Can the other members in my new group see all my Facebook info?
So, the worst has happened: Your now ex-friend just added you to the "Bald Eagle Hunters Club," and all of a sudden you’re unwillingly mingling with a bunch of ... well, people you wouldn’t normally invite over for tea. Since you’re in a group with these guys, do they now have access to all your Facebook info?

Here’s the good news: not if you’ve limited access to your profile in Facebook’s privacy settings. If you’ve restricted your updates, photos, and personal data to "friends only," your fellow "Bald Eagle" members won’t be able to see anything about you except your publicly accessible profile info (which, again, you can customize in your privacy settings).

On the other hand, if your privacy settings allow anyone and everyone to see your Facebook info, other, non-friend members in your new Group will be able see your data too — then again, they already could, even before you (unwittingly or not) joined the group.

Bonus: What can I do to ensure my privacy is completely secure in a group — or on Facebook in general?
You probably already know all this, but it bears repeating in light of the new Groups controversy: Facebook isn’t about keeping your personal info safe. It’s a (for-profit) business that does everything it can to get people to share their personal information. That’s not an excuse, it’s just a fact.

If you’re really worried about your privacy on Facebook, please — don’t post your personal details, photos, videos, street addresses, or phone numbers on Facebook. Seriously! It might even be time to delete your account, or just don’t join at all. Trust me, you’ll still be able to make friends in the real world.

But if you still want to be on Facebook, you’ll have to accept the fact that you’re putting your personal information in Facebook’s hands. Don’t trust Facebook — or your friends on Facebook, for that matter? Then maybe Facebook isn’t for you.

— Ben Patterson is a technology writer for Yahoo! News.

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