Facebook Officially Launches Smart Lists, and Special Friend Lists That Influence the News Feed

Facebook today officially launches several improvements to its Friend Lists feature that can be used to define privacy settings and filter the news feed, including some changes that leaked last week. As we covered in depth then, users now have automatically created, populated and updated Smart Lists of their family, co-workers, classmates, and local friends. Additionally, users can now add friends to an “Acquaintances” list whose members will appear less frequently in the news feed, and a “Close Friends” list of people who will appear more frequently in news feed and whose updates will trigger notifications.

By building or starting these lists for users, Facebook may be able increase adoption of the Friend Lists feature, leading users to control their privacy more nimbly, increase the relevance of their news feeds, and share a wider range of content with more specific audiences. However, a lack of granular control of Close Friends’ opt out notifications may push users to quickly turn them off or forgo adding friends to the special list, and the fact that members of lists are revealed when users publish to them might scare users away from the feature.

We recapped the history of the four year old Friend Lists feature last week, describing how they’ve never been widely used due to the chore of making them and their buried place in the interface. Their potential to get users to publish content more often but to fewer people is important to the long-term health of Facebook and its ability to fend off competitors focused on micro-sharing such as Google+.

The addition of characteristic-based Friend Lists could get users to share more personal, professional and local content with relevant audiences, rather than spam friends on the other side of the country about making dinner plans, or offend co-workers or family with racier photos and jokes.

Bookmarks, Smart Lists, and Special Lists

With today’s update, manually created Friend Lists, Smart Lists, and the special lists are now easily accessible from bookmarks in the site’s left sidebar. When clicked, they filter the news feed to only show updates from their members. More, fewer, or no bookmarks will appear depending on user’s engagement with the feature. Users will also be able to easily publish a post to one or more Friend Lists, as they’re now included in the new audience drop-down of the news feed publisher.

Facebook’s Director of Product Blake Ross tells us their old location “was not discoverable” and that the bookmark system will make Friend Lists optional for those who want them without “fundamentally changing the behavior” of those who don’t.

The Smart Lists are populated based on information explicitly included in the profiles of friends. Users will have one list of family members, one for each of their work places, one for each of their schools and colleges, and a local friends list of those living within 10 miles of their current city. Users can customize the mile radius of the local friends Smart List using a slick map feature to include friends in nearby cities.

Mimicking some of the most frequently manually created Friend Lists, Facebook now creates Acquaintances and Close Friends lists by default, but doesn’t auto-populate them. Those added to the former, like distant friends and old colleagues, will only have their most important content, such as marriages and moves, appear in a user’s news feed. Those in the Close Friends list will have more of their content appear in a user’s news feed, and each update they post will trigger Facebook and optional email notifications.

Users can manually add or remove members to any of their lists, and Facebook is making this editing process easier too. With a very similar design to Google+, user profiles now display a button allowing for instant admission into a list, rather than forcing users to go back to the Friend List editor. Users can even preemptively assign a potential friend to lists while they await a response to their friend request. Suggestions for people to add to a list, based on their similarities with existing members, will now appear beside the news feed when that list is applied as a feed filter.

Notification Overload and Privacy Concerns

As we saw when Facebook temporarily made game requests trigger notifications, those about other users can drown out more pressing notifications about posts to a user’s wall or photo tags. Ross tells us Close Friends is designed for users with fewer friends, but the site’s early tests showed they aren’t annoying for those with large, active networks. Still, those who don’t want a big influx of notifications may have to choose whether to simply turn them off or not get the full value out of the list’s ability to influence the news feed by only adding a very small number of friends.

One significant privacy issue is that when users see a post in the news feed because they’re a member of a Friend List published to by a friend, they can see who else is included in that list. Ross explains that this lets users know how public any comments they leave on the post will be, and that users won’t see the name of the list. Still, Friend Lists and their members have always been private unless explicitly featured in a user’s profile, and being forced to reveal their members might make users weary of publishing to them.

Ross tells us with time Facebook may add more types of Smart Lists, but only ones based on explicitly stated profile information. The changes to Friend Lists, which will roll out soon, have the potential to bring on a new era of micro-sharing on Facebook if the site can learn how users want to apply them. To help it improve the feature and quiet claims that it doesn’t listen to its users, Facebook is encouraging people to leave feedback on a newly created “Facebook Lists Team” Facebook Page.

Facebook Smart Lists Automatically Group Friends With Shared Characteristics for Use With Privacy Settings

Facebook is currently testing a new feature called Smart Lists that automatically groups friends with common characteristics into Friend Lists that dynamically update themselves over time. Previously, Friend Lists had to be manually assembled and updated — a chore that contributed to them being used by only 5% of the user base. First spotted by Nick Starr, Smart Lists are now being created for the coworkers, classmates, and friends who live within 50 miles of users in the test group.

Since Smart Lists can be selected within privacy settings and the news feed publisher to determine who can see profile or posted content, they could encourage users to micro-share to specific subsets of their friends. This allows them to post a wider variety of content to Facebook, enriching the site. With Smart Lists, Facebook has leveraged the wealth of data it has about the interconnections between its users to drastically reduce friction in the Friend List creation process, and one-up Google+ Circles that must be laboriously built by hand.

Facebook is also now showing a tool tip explaining how the previously available “Friend List Feed Filters” work when users choose to filter the news feed by selecting a Friend List from the Most Recent drop-down menu. While viewing the filtered feed users can manage the members of the Friend List and confirm Facebook’s suggestions for additions to the list. This change educate users about Friend Lists and make manually created ones easier to keep up to date.

Since December 2007, Facebook has allowed users to assign friends to Friend Lists that can used as news feed filters, distribution parameters for posted content, and visibility settings for the profile. However, their buried place in the interface, the slow creation process, and the fact that explicitly categorizing friends is somewhat unnatural made Friend lists a feature that only attracted power users. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the launch event for the Groups feature in October 2010 that only 5% of users had created friend lists.

Over the years, Facebook has tried to surface the feature in more places around the site and make them a little easier to create. While creating friends lists, users gained the option to sort them by parameters such as Recently added as well as profile characteristics including those used to create Smart Lists to speed up assignment. Later Facebook started allowing users to add someone to a list when they confirmed their friend request.

In October 2010, Facebook began showing suggestions of people to add to existing lists based on similarities with previously added members — the closest thing to a predecessor to Smart Lists. Previously these suggestions appeared only in the Friend List editor interface, accessible through Account0 -> Edit Friends, but now they appear beside the news feed when filtering the feed with a Friend List.

Contact sorting and micro-sharing have become bigger issues over the past few months. Google+ was applauded for its drag-and-drop Circle building process that was faster than building Facebook Friend Lists. Third-party developer Katango recently built a product that “auto-magically” build Friend Lists by clustering similar friends and allowing users to export the lists to Facebook. Both products raised the question of why Facebook, with all its biographical and behavior data, couldn’t automatically create Friend Lists for users.

Now Facebook has shown that it can automatically build Friends Lists. Users currently in the limited tester base for Smart Lists have lists for coworkers, classmates, and local friends automatically created for them. The feature doesn’t go as far as Katango, which uses a wide variety of signals to create more than a dozen lists for users such their closest friends or people met on a vacation, as well as those made by Smart Lists.

Facebook very well may improve the feature in the future to create Smart Lists from more subtle clusters of friends and not just those who share an explicitly listed characteristic. The tool tip explaining the feature notes that users can remove friends from Smart Lists at any time, allowing them to expel friends mistakenly admitted to lists where they don’t belong.

The fact that Smart Lists update themselves in response is a huge improvement over Katango and Google+. As more friends move to a user’s city or join their company, they’ll be automatically added to the corresponding Friend Lists. With the friction of building and maintaining lists removed, a roll out of Smart Lists could significantly increase adoption of the Friends Lists and micro-sharing.

Users may be more likely to share professional, nostalgic, and local-focused content by restricting the visibility of these posts to just those they’re relevant to. Without lists for these subsets automatically created and ready, users might have never shared these types of content, making Facebook a less interesting place for their friends to visit.

Smart Lists could also erase one of Google+’s core advantages over Facebook. The feature’s launch underscores a deficiency in Google+’s growth strategy of rolling out to early adopters first without a clear way to bring mainstream users aboard they way Facebook did by opening at one college at a time. As such Google revealed its Facebook-besting features but hasn’t been able to gain massive traction since, giving Facebook time to catch up.

Facebook Roundup: Ph.D. Fellows, Menlo Park, Deals, Credits, f8, Valuation, Engineering, Friendster and More

Facebook Announces Tech Heavy Set of 2011 Fellows – Facebook announced who was selected to become Ph.D. fellows this year. The Facebook Fellowship Program included people with backgrounds in psychology and economics last year; this year the five winners who receive tuition and fees for the 2011-2012 academic year, $5,000 for travel, $2,500 for a computer and a $30,000 stipend all study technical disciplines.

Specifically, Adrienne Porter Felt and Kurt Thomas of the University of California at Berkeley both study computer security, Yinan Li of the Universitiy of Wisconsin at Madison studies databases, Wei Liu of Columbia University studies machine learning, and Marke Olszewski of MIT studies compiler technology.

Facebook to Grow to 9,400 Employees by 2017 – According to public documents in Menlo Park, California Facebook plans to grow its workforce at its new Menlo Park headquarters from 1,400 to 9,400 people by 2017.

Facebook Deals All About Credits – AllFacebook reports that Facebook sources are saying that the company is not initially taking a cut of the revenue from its new Deals program. Instead it reportedly seeks to expand the reach of Credits, the in-Facebook currency.

Facebook to Host f8 in 2011 – Facebook has confirmed that the company will host an f8 conference sometime this year.

Facebook Valued at $70B on Secondary Market - Reuters reports that a group  of investors are trying to sell $1 billion of Facebook stock on secondary markets for amounts that would put the company’s total value at $70 billion; these investors previously tried to sell the shares for a value of $90 billion, but couldn’t move the stock.

Details of Russian Facebook Ownership – Gigaom reported this week that Russian investor Yuri Milner holds a 2.33% stake in Facebook, 1.41% stake in Zynga and a 4.63% stake in Groupon, among other investments and holdings.

Facebook Institutes “Hackamonths” - Facebook Engineering’s Dave Ferugson posted a note to the Facebook Engineering Page this week in which he detailed Facebook’s new “Hackamonth” program for engineers. Essentially the program will allow engineers to temporarily leave their current team to work on a different project; the goal is to have about 10% of the company’s engineerings participating each month. The Hackamonth program could become a recruiting talking point that lures engineers who are tired of working on the same project for years on end at other tech companies.

Details on Facebook’s Messages Server – The Facebook Engineering Team published a note this week that details the internal functioning of the Messages application server.

Facebook Advertises on Gmail – Facebook is running ads on Google, according to this screenshot. [Image via jing]

 

Friendster Deletes User Info on May 31 – A message sent to registered Friendster users announced that users should export their data because the social network is going to delete all of it on May 31. The company, from which Facebook purchased patents in Auguest 2010, notes that it will delete blogs, photos, comments, groups, etc., but keep accounts active and become an entertainment site, reported TechCrunch.

Blog Suggests New Feature for Facebook – A new blog, Yo Zuck! Implement This, takes suggestions for Facebook and creates mock-ups of their implementation. Youssef Sarhan is in Dublin and runs the blog, and has suggested a translate function, notification change and other interesting features. [Image via Yo Zuck]

MakeMeReach Raises €3M – The French Facebook-approved ad network and Facebook app developer MakeMeReach raised €3 million to fund international outreach for its services. Currently the company employs 25 and will use its funding to double staffing to move into Italian, Spanish and German markets, TechCrunch reports.

Facebook Adds “Friends Not on a List” View to the Friend Lists Editor

Some users can now select to see all of their “Friends Not on a List” as part of Facebook’s Friend Lists interface. The new addition helps users ensure that all their friends have been assigned to a list to which content can be hidden from or made visible. For instance, it allows users to see if all of their sensitive family or professional contacts have been added to a list from which they hide their photos or status updates.

However, it’s not clear how many people might make use of the feature. Facebook has stated in the past that only 5% of users take advantage of Friend Lists, and it’s likely that an even smaller fraction of people list enough of their friends for this to be useful. The Friends Lists feature has been steadily hidden away from the home page — you used to be able to sort by all of your lists on the home page, for example — so now with this latest change Facebook has chosen to facilitate the power user experience rather than alter Friend Lists to be more appealing or readily available to a wider audience.

Users part of this test or who are first in this gradual rollout will see the “Friends Not on a List” option below their other lists in the Friend List editor’s left sidebar. Users cannot use it as a friend list though — it can’t be selected as a privacy distribution parameter for their shared content or profile.

Despite their importance to allowing users to share a wider range of content by restricting its visibility to a subset of friends, most users have never made any friend lists. The feature is relatively buried, forcing users to click the somewhat awkwardly named “Edit Friends” option in the Account drop-down menu. Also, systematically categorizing hundreds of friends is an unnatural and laborious chore.

Facebook tried to make this easier by providing suggestions of friends to add to existing lists by displaying one-click add buttons on friends who share characteristics with those already on the list. It also let users sort by characteristics such as school or workplace during the Friend List creation process. However, Facebook hasn’t announced any significant increase in the feature’s popularity since these additions were made.

As an alternate option of restricting content visibility, Facebook released its Groups feature, but this notifies a user’s friends when they’re added, preventing it from being used to secretly hide sensitive information from a specific type of friend.

“Friends Not on a List” is the first noteworthy change to the Friend Lists editor in six months, though Facebook did begin to allow users to display “Featured Friends” as part of the redesigned profile.  It may be a signal of Facebook’s dedication to getting the feature right, even if only through incremental change. Otherwise, it may just be a token to the feature’s few users in advance of a major overhaul or removal of Friend Lists.

Since those who have created Friend Lists may have invested a lot of time crafting them, Facebook may be wary of making bigger changes until it’s sure it has a solution to privacy. How to best empower users to efficiently manage different privacy settings for different friends is a complicated problem. But if Facebook can solve it, users will be able to share more content of varying sensitivity levels, such a emotional confessions, racy photos, or their location, but with fewer friends, and thereby mimic the way we share in real life more accurately.

Update 10/7/2011: The “Friends Not on a List” feature has been removed since Facebook introduced Smart Lists in September 2011.

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