PALO ALTO, Calif. (AdAge.com) -- Facebook rewrote the rules of social networking today and addressed what founder Mark Zuckerberg called social networking's "biggest problem." That is, how to share information with particular people or groups based on their interests.
The solution? A new feature called "Groups" that allows users to segment their friends, or form specialized networks within Facebook. "Do I really want to annoy all my friends who don't care about running about how I had an awesome jog this morning? How do I solve this?" Mr. Zuckerberg asked.
The new feature is part of several changes designed to give Facebook's half-billion users more control over the information they share, including updates, messages and photos.
With Groups, a Facebook user can now create a group and then invite his friends to join. Those users in turn can invite their friends to join. The groups can be public, closed or secret, and the users can control the levels of privacy of the groups. Users can have an email list, document sharing and group chats.
There is no official limit on the size of the group, but once a group gets beyond 250 people, some of the functionality gets turned off or limited. For example, chatting is turned off once it reaches 250 people and the news-feed feature is also limited to prevent the group from becoming too "spammy," execs said.
Marketers, of course, salivate over this kind of information. "It's a quantity vs. quality story," said Dave Marsey, senior VP-media at Digitas, an agency whose clients include American Express and General Motors. "The impact of an ad that's within a page that is friend/family-based is very high. I call that 'first degree connections' -- it's where consumers are going to let their hair down. This very highly pointed interest group and the power that it brings to the marketer is a higher quality of targeting."
Facebook's VP-product management, Chris Cox, said that targeted marketing is not possible for groups at this time, and may not be for a while. Mr. Zuckerberg added that he is going to observe social interactions with the new Groups product as he sees that only about 5% to 10% of Facebook users may be group creators. But this will be enough. "I could easily see 80% coverage of this over time," said Mr. Zuckerberg. "But this could take months to play out."
Another new feature is a tool called "Download Your Information," which allows users to download a file of everything they have ever uploaded or said or RSVP'd to on Facebook. That includes all wall messages and photos. However, StickyBitz founder Seth Goldstein said that Facebook still keeps some of the most valuable information and activity users have "created" on Facebook -- their relationships and interactions with other users. (In other words, if I recommend a book to you or if you suggest I try a shampoo for my colored hair, that is not in my zip file of personal information.)
"I can't download my relationships and for advertisers -- one friend recommends something -- that's very valuable," Mr. Goldstein said. "Facebook's keeping that for themselves so, as of now, the only way to get access to my social graph is through Facebook."
The third feature Facebook launched today is a dashboard that shows users all the applications they have downloaded and allowed access to their profile, and what information that application has used. Engineers said the new feature helps make sure that the applications are using the proper information and the proper time and allows greater visibility into what is happening to users' information.
Facebook's motivation in offering data portability, while a clear benefit to consumers, may stem from the Federal Trade Commission's investigation into social networks.