Facebook is wrong. The social graph isn’t flat

Many years ago when I was starting out in the workforce the brother of a good friend passed away as a consequence of a big disease with a little name and afterwards I did some fund-raising work for the hospice where he had been cared for. I mentioned it to a co-worker who didn’t think about the consequences and, thinking he was doing the right thing, tried to get others to support an event I was involved in. Short term the upshot was pretty bad with people assuming I was either gay, or unwell myself and reacting accordingly. Luckily in this instance we were able to clear up the misunderstanding and in fact raised both support and awareness.

But that’s not always the case when groups overlap and an innocent comment from one world crosses into another.

Sometimes the cross-over can be personally damaging (“don’t ask, don’t tell”), other times it’s just a case of reducing noise on the social network – for instance while I may have a love of both Mustangs and Silverlight there’s very little cross over between those groups so I’d like to be able to keep things separate.

Facebook, and its predecessors, have decided that the social graph is flat and that it’s in their best interests (as operators of the network) to connect everyone to everyone else without boundaries.

For a lot of users that’s maybe acceptable. However as concerns grow over Facebook’s privacy controls and policies around what it does with our personal data I suspect it’s going to become more and more of an issue. It’s not a trivial problem to solve elegantly but unless Facebook does allow a more real-world reflection of the groups and alignments we want between overlapping and separate circles of friends then – like they have replaced MySpace and Friendster before them – a new network will take their place which places higher value on the personal choices users want to make.

I have found myself using email and things like Posterous Groups even more to try and retain a feeling of control.

Can Facebook fix this? I think they are starting to with the addition of the Groups feature, but until you can use that to control everything then the problem will remain. And they have to be able to do it in a way that they believe won’t impact their ability to sell users to their customers (the advertisers).

For instance if I create a “Silverlight” group and a “Mustang” group and then assign some friends to one group, others to the other and maybe one or two to both then if I post something to my wall and tag it “Mustang” only those in that group would see it. If I post something on my wall in public (no group restrictions) and a “Silverlight” user responds then by default only those in the Silverlight group would see that response (I’d have the option to “release” the comment to a wider audience if I want).

The same capability needs to apply to photos, videos, checkin’s etc and the functionality needs to be treated as a first class citizen both on the web and in mobile clients. If I check in at a Mustang event, or upload photos I want to choose who sees that, not just scatter them at random.

There are some interesting edge cases around situations where people are already friends independently of you, but hopefully they have their groups set up in such a way to not leak by inference – though I suspect this is an area that people will earn PhDs in long before there’s a simple answer.

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