Facebook Groups Don't Have A Privacy Problem, But Someone Needs To Can The Spam

This morning there has a rash of reports claiming that Facebook Groups may be somehow violating your privacy, possibly heralding the latest in Facebook’s long string of privacy blunders. The uproar, if you can even call it that, was sparked in part by Jason Calacanis who was “force-joined” into an untoward group called NAMBLA without his consent, which could conceivably tarnish his reputation if the story popped up in a friend’s News Feed. But Calacanis wasn’t the first person to notice this potential problem: we were testing exactly this functionality last night. Our conclusion? If your friends are jerks, you could have a minor annoyance on your hands; for everyone else, this simply isn’t a privacy threat. The real problem, as plenty of others have noticed by now, is spam.

In his email decrying the new feature, Calacanis writes how it “seems as if anyone can add anyone” to a Facebook Group, which opens the door to abuse. But he glosses over one key point: in order for someone to add you to a group, they have to be your Facebook friend. And yes, if you’ve decided to ‘friend’ a bunch of people you don’t know (or know to be troublemakers), then you could have an annoyance on your hands. But the same has been true for ages on Facebook.

Think about it. Before the new Groups feature, there’s been plenty of room for similar abuse: a ‘friend’ could tag you in a photo doing something illegal; they could leave an embarrassing comment on one of your status updates; or they could tag you at a strip club using the new Places feature. Granted, some of these features (Photos in particular) have more robust privacy settings than Groups do, but ultimately if someone is going out of their way to use Facebook to defame you, they can probably find a way. Which brings us back to the question: why are you friends with this person in the first place?

Still though, there is a real problem with Groups, and it’s spam. Once you’ve been added to a group (which doesn’t require an opt-in on your part), you’ll be sent email notifications each time one of your friends posts to that group. That could pose a problem depending on how active your friends are — our own MG Siegler says he woke up to 300 new email notifications from the feature alone. As Anil Dash wrote in one tweet this morning, “I wanted to like groups, but now I’m on 50 unwanted email lists.”

It’s pretty easy to adjust your notification settings on a per-group basis, but Facebook’s default choice is a frustrating one, and it’s also strange given the rationale behind launching Groups in the first place. During Facebook’s presentation yesterday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg talked about ‘The Biggest Problem'”in social networking, describing how difficult it is for online social networks to mimic the different social spheres we have in the real world. One of the symptoms that result is the hesitation people get before they post something to Facebook: they wind up asking themselves if what they’re about to post is really relevant to their hundreds of friends, or if it’s just going to annoy most of them.

That’s the problem Groups is supposed to solve — instead of telling your family, friends, and coworkers about your morning jog, you can just tell your jogging buddies. But with this default email notification setting, Facebook may have actually increased the level of angst people feel before they post something. Now, instead of just showing up as an item in your friend’s News Feed, it’s actually going to be sent directly into their inbox, which is far more sacred to most people. Sure, that update may only be reaching a subset of your friends now, but the sharing threshold that Facebook was trying to bypass may be higher than ever.

Fortunately there’s a pretty easy solution to this that’s been around for ages: the daily email digest.