Facebook this week announced some sweeping changes to its dominant social networking service, providing members with ways to segregate friends into groups, monitor Facebook applications, and download all of their Facebook-based personal information to a PC.
"The biggest problem in social networking is helping you easily interact with your friends and share information in lots of different contexts," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post announcing the changes. (I thought it was privacy, but no matter.) "We've long heard that people would find Facebook more useful if it were easier to connect with smaller groups of their friends instead of always sharing with everyone they know ... We approached this problem as primarily a social one."
Facebook Groups lets you divide your friends list into logical groups that mirror the real world relationships you may have (or not) with the people in your Facebook friends list. You can then post text and photos, chat in real time, and perform other actions only with the people in particular groups. So you might plan a family event, for example, via a family group that contains only people in your family.
Facebook also introduced a tool for downloading to your computer "everything you've ever posted on Facebook and all your correspondences with friends: your messages, Wall posts, photos, status updates, and profile information." This functionality is available via a new Download Your Information link in Facebook's account settings. (This setting isn't currently available on all Facebook accounts, according to the company, but is being rolled out this week.)
Facebook will also provide a new dashboard, Applications and Websites, via the service's privacy settings interface. This dashboard provides a list of which Facebook applications you've authorized against your account and what data they have access to. It's worth looking at: I barely use Facebook and I had somehow managed to authorize 24 different applications, many of which I don't recall allowing. Facebook doesn't provide any sort of description for the apps, but it does offer a way to remove individual applications or simply turn off all network applications.
Facebook has come under fire regularly from privacy advocates because the service does little to protect the privacy of its members. And while the company has responded with privacy control improvements over time, complaints that Facebook could do more persist. Such is the case with this week's updates. "If you don't trust Facebook in the first place, why would you believe your Group is a contained area that Facebook won't mine?" analyst Rob Enderle asks semi-rhetorically. Others agree, noting that group memberships will provide Facebook with valuable information about its members' online connections. Given the company's actions in the past, it's naïve to believe they won't use this information, some claim.