Earlier today, Facebook held a special event to unveil a totally revamped Groups product, a new data export option, and a dashboard to help you monitor third-party apps that you’ve linked with Facebook. In short, it’s a huge day for the company — the result of a 60-day Lockdown period this summer, during which Facebook employees had their noses to the grindstone even more than usual (the sign above is actually hanging inside of Facebook HQ).
Following the event, I had the chance to sit down with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Justin Shaffer, who founded Hot Potato (which Facebook acquired in August) and is now Product Manager for the revamped Groups. The interview, which you can read in its entirety below, touches on a few topics: the timing of the announcements, which may be a preemptive strike against Google’s upcoming social strategy Google Me; the rationale for allowing users to download their data now, after years of advocacy groups asking for such functionality; and even Facebook’s recently-granted patent on location services, which Zuckerberg hints won’t be used offensively.
Jason Kincaid: My first question concerns the timing on this. There’s been a lot of rumors about Google Me or a Google social network of some kind — how does this play into that? Are these features that have been on the drawing board for a long time and it’s just coincidental that they’ve come out at this point?
Mark Zuckerberg: Yeah. It’s really tough to time an announcement. Our methodology around this is normally just to work and work, and when it’s ready we announce it. The whole Lockdown thing came about because we saw that we had a bunch of different projects that were about ready to go into their final intense push and get launched in the next couple of months. So we decided to rally the whole company around this — we said, “we’re going to focus on a few of these things and put all of our energy behind those”. So we tried to launch these in that period, and it turns out it’s a week after, which isn’t a big deal — it’s fine. That’s really the main push. I don’t know what the exact timing was. It might have been that in May there was so much energy around all the privacy stuff that was going on that there was kind of this lull in new development and then there was a big wave of things that were ready to go.
Jason Kincaid: So these could have been pushed back a bit because of Instant Personalization and…(the rest of the privacy debate)..?
Mark Zuckberberg: There may have been something internally.. We were just as a company so focused on getting privacy right at that point that we stopped thinking about a bunch of other things and then once we were done working on that wave of privacy-related things, we had around eight new products that were all on-deck to launch.
Jason Kincaid: And there are still more coming that weren’t part of this suite of products?
Mark Zuckerberg: Yes there will be a few more.. some good ones…
Jason Kincaid: Like a redesign maybe?
Mark Zuckerberg: I don’t know where that rumor came from. It depends on what you call a redesign. I mean, Groups…
Jason Kincaid: My impression from what we’d reported is that Facebook Profiles would look more similar to the Places pages.
Mark Zuckerberg: I don’t know…
Justin Shaffer: Yeah I read that yesterday on TechCrunch and was sort of curious..
Mark Zuckerberg: I don’t think we’re working on an aesthetic redesign. But there’s a bunch of other stuff that I’m pretty excited about that will come out in the next couple of months.
Jason Kincaid: Justin, I know you just joined around two months ago? Am I correct in assuming that the Groups product was already under way at that point or did you ..
Mark Zuckerberg: It was underway but it wouldn’t have gotten finished.
Justin Shaffer: I will take that compliment, thank you *laughs*. But yeah, there was a team that had already come together. One of the things about Lockdown though was that, as Mark said, the whole company really rallied around this. As we’re getting this stuff done — like Places launched and then the Games event two weeks ago — everybody just puts their heads down for whatever it takes to get done. It’s really exciting to be part of a culture and organization like that. I’m having the time of my life. It’s really fun. And so for Groups, the amount of people within Facebook and engineering and product across the company that this touched. We were basically living in the office to launch and everyone was really fired up to get it done. I don’t think you could characterize this as being all me..
Mark Zuckerberg: We have had this interesting strategy, we’re trying to build a really entrepreneurial company and culture. One of the ways we’ve focused on doing that has been just to get people who we think are running really interesting companies to join. That’s why we bought Hot Potato — to make sure you [Shaffer] and a couple of other folks joined. That strategy has worked really well for us so far.
Jason Kincaid: Now a question about this Data Portability announcement.. I know this is something that people have been complaining about for as long as I can remember — what made this possible now? Is it the fact that you have David Recordon on now? My understanding is that there were privacy challenges that made it difficult to do this before and I’m wondering how you cleared those.
Mark Zuckerberg: I think that this is a pretty big step forward in terms of making it so that people can download all of their information, but it isn’t going to be all of what everyone wants. There are going to be questions about why you can’t download your friend’s information too. And it’s because it’s your friend’s and not yours. But you can see that information on Facebook, so maybe you should be able to download it… those are some of the grey areas.
So for this, what we decided to do was stick to content that was completely clear. You upload those photos and videos and wall posts and messages, and you can take them out and they’re yours, undisputed — that’s your profile. There’s going to be more that we need to think through over time. One of the things, we just couldn’t understand why people kept on saying there’s no way to export your information from Facebook because we have Connect, which is the single biggest large-scale way that people bring information from one site to another that I think has ever been built.
Justin Shaffer: It’s crazy as a former Connect developer, you can pull a lot of information out of Facebook…
Mark Zuckerberg: So then all of these people say they want a .ZIP file, so we said, Ok let’s give them a .ZIP file. If it’s meaningful to have it in that format and make it so that you can have it on your computer, then we want to do that. We implemented it on top of the Graph API to show that this is part of the broader Connect program. And we made it pretty too. So it isn’t just a Zip file that sits there — it’s really a cool product. If you download your information and scroll through, it’s pretty mesmerizing. And then think about downloading different copies and look back at how your FB account was at different times in the future.
Jason Kincaid: This goes back to the timing issue. I read some initial reaction to the Data Portability launch, and it talked about how you are so big now that it doesn’t really matter if you let everyone take their data with them. Does that play into this at all?
Mark Zuckerberg: I think we just think it’s the right thing to do.
Jason Kincaid: So it’s more of a fundamental part of the company philosophy that you just hadn’t gotten around to implementing yet?
Mark Zuckerberg: Yeah. There’s a lot of stuff that we want to do that we haven’t gotten around to doing yet. It’s something that people here believe really strongly — that you own your information. But it’s interesting, there were questions that I think got to all of the tensions, like “Well isn’t this dangerous? What if someone hacks your computer after you have this file?”
And it’s like — yeah, that’s an issue. But then the question is, what’s better? To build up all these walls so that nothing bad ever happens or to give people control of their information and let all that innovation happen. And I think in reality, philosophically we’re so far on the side of being open and giving people complete ownership and control because it’s their information. And in practice we’re trying to mediate all this stuff and make it as good as possible.
Jason Kincaid: Going back to the Groups, how does this play into the Like button, the Share button. I know Facebook is getting really broad distribution in terms of how people are sharing across the web, and it seems like one thing I would like to do is share a given post with one of my Groups as opposed to everyone’s News Feed.
Justin Shaffer: It’s an awesome use case for social plugins, if you want to control distribution of that action. It isn’t something we’ve built for this first release.
Mark Zuckerberg: Actually I don’t know, I think this might automatically be built into the composer. I’m not sure exactly how this is implemented, but we designed it so that we could build a block that gets inherited into a lot of products. When you write a status today there’s a little lock that lets you pick who you want to share it with — you can just set in that you want to just share with a group.
Jason Kincaid: Does that composer appear when I hit the share button on a third party site?
Mark Zuckerberg: That I don’t know off the top of my head. But if not today, then in a matter of months we’ll have that sorted out. We built the architecture so that it could support that.
Jason Kincaid: One question that is totally unrelated to any of this: this morning there was a post saying that Facebook had been granted a patent on location, in terms of associating location data with a status update. Is that something that Facebook will use defensively or do you anticipate possibly using it as leverage in negotiations with Foursquare, Gowalla, etc.?
Barry Schnitt (Director of Corporate Communications, on Facebook’s PR team): I don’t know of any company thatcomments on their IP strategy.
Mark Zuckerberg: I actually didn’t even know we got that patent.
Barry Schnitt: We have a statement on that, but for lots of reasons that involve the effectiveness of a patent, you just don’t comment on what it will be used for.
Mark Zuckerberg: I mean, you can see what we’ve used patents for in the past.
Jason Kincaid: I can’t remember a time you’ve used…
Mark Zuckerberg: Exactly.
Jason Kincaid: …it offensively.
Jason Kincaid: Ok — and was there anything else you guys wanted to cover on Groups?
Mark Zuckerberg: The thing that is really important to understand about Groups — I think it’s very easy to look at the announcement and say, oh it’s Groups, there’s been Groups products for ten years.
But it’s the fact that we’re building groups as a building block to do all of these other things and I think that’s what is fundamental — I think a bunch of folks are probably going to miss that coming from the announcement, and just say, “oh this is groups”. But I think that this has the potential really be a major step forward for this site.
Jason Kincaid: How are you going to on-board people into this? This sort of fundamentally changes how a lot of people are going to be using the site I’d expect. How are you going to introduce them to this concept?
Justin Shaffer: The messaging is pretty straightforward. We think of these as shared spaces for you and a small group of your friends. Tactically we’re rolling it out very aggressively in the next week or so to our userbase, and you can get access to Groups in one of two ways: you’ll either be someone who is seeded and at that point you won’t have any groups and your left navbar will change. You’ll have a link that says “Create a group” and we’ll give you a contextual dialog that explains what’s going on. And if you are a user who likes to read about it, there’s a lot of information that supports that.
The other, and perhaps more interesting way is that say, I haven’t used the product and Mark adds me to a ‘Facebookers Living in Palo Alto’ group. I get a notification about that and am now part of the product. I can go create my own groups after that. I’m immediately in, I’m seeing content, I’m seeing what’s going on. It’s really simple.