Recently, UC Merced students have taken advantage of Facebook’s Groups feature. Though the feature once was a mere substitute for the outdated “List” function, it now allows sub-groups and restricted access. The UC Merced Facebook group, for example, is limited to users who have an “@ucmerced.edu” email address, and contains a series of subgroups for everything from majors to class years to interest groups.
The page, which currently has over 1,750 members, is home to a number of subgroups, including “Textbook Exchange at UC Merced” which has over 400 members alone and facilitates textbook exchanges and sales among UC students who wish to sell or purchase directly from their peers. A similar group, “UC Merced Classifieds,” allows students to sell or purchase various items: while textbooks are also requested and sold on this page, so are televisions, couches, clothing, and electronics. A third group, “Housing at UC Merced,” offers a forum for students looking to find or fill housing or find roommates.
Though none of these groups seem to be regulated, whether by student volunteers, Facebook staff, or University officials, a social etiquette has developed and UC students seem much more willing to trust one another with the purchase or sale of their belongings than they would with strangers met via websites like Craiglist.org. Whether this is because the UC email requirement ensures that all participants are affiliated with the University or because most of the participants know each other in real life is unclear. It is, however, evident that this usage of Facebook’s Groups feature is providing a service to the UC Merced community.
Though Facebook has a history of drawing ire from its supporters whenever it makes a major change, they have been tweaking the Groups feature for a couple of years now. When Facebook introduced their “Lists” feature, they were attempting to help users distinguish among their circles of friends, and allow for discriminate contact. However, this service was largely unpopular because of the immense amount of effort it required on the user’s behalf. Facebook returned to the drawing board, and later evolved the “Groups” feature.
Groups are intended to replace lists, in that they may automatically group friends who know each other through similar ways. For example, UC Merced is a Facebook group that makes it easy for a user to contact only their friends at the University or to recall where they know a particular friend from. This functionality works by allowing users to tag their own friends in a group; as Zuckerberg stated in a media release, this was meant to mirror what happens with photographs (when photos are uploaded to Facebook, users are tagged much more commonly by their friends than by themselves).
However, this meant that Groups was using an “opt-out” system, in which a user could be added to a group by a friend without their knowledge. They would then receive a notification, and have the option to “opt-out” if they did not wish to remain a member of the group, as opposed to an “opt-in” system, where one user may invite another. Only after that invitation is accepted is the user added to the group. The opt-out style of membership is conducive to Facebook’s goals for the Groups feature, but posed a series of privacy problems for Facebook.
To illustrate the flaws of an opt-out system, Mark Zuckerberg himself was added to the NAMBLA group. NAMBLA, or “North American Man-Boy Love Association,” is an advocacy group for pedophilia. Though Zuckerberg removed himself, the point was well illustrated: involuntary membership in a group, even if short-lived, can be embarrassing and problematic.
Facebook’s Groups do, however, currently appear strong, and the UC Merced community is certainly taking advantage of them. Whether privacy concerns will ultimately win out is not yet clear. In any case, Facebook users at UC Merced would do well to rifle through their group options: they may discover a hidden gem or two.