Why Facebook’s new Groups feature is a win for developers

The Stik.com blog has been quiet since Jay declared that Facebook would become “the defining platform of the next decade“. (Note that it took 4 extra months and the introduction of the LIKE button for Techcrunch’s Michael Arrington to reach the same conclusion – ha!)

We’ve been too busy redesigning the site and building business relationships to write as often as we’d like, but we break our silence today to comment on Facebook’s latest important step forward. The new Facebook Groups feature is both an important usability improvement for users and a sign of great things to come for developers.

First, in case you forgot: the purpose of Stik.com is to help people find trusted professionals in high-stakes industries, including mortgage, insurance, financial planning, and real estate. Instead of calling a bunch of friends to see if any of them have a friend in these industries, you can use Stik.com to search all of your friends’ networks at once.

Most people love this idea immediately, but a minority (including Malcolm Gladwell, who recently argued that social media ties are too weak to push real social change), asks a tough question:  What if Stik finds a person that my friend doesn’t really trust?

Clearly, all Facebook friends are not created equal. I’ve got Facebook friends that I haven’t seen since before Facebook, and while these friendships mean something, there’s no doubt that some bonds are stronger than others.  Unfortunately, before the new Groups, there was no great way for developers to tell the difference.

At Stik, we’ve developed strategies that use the number of friends two users share to estimate the strength of their relationship. This is better than nothing, but as Mark Zuckerberg said yesterday, it’s very easy for algorithms to guess wrong.

The new Groups product does several important things to solve this problem:

First, since groups are created and maintained by users, they provide a no-guesswork reflection of who really cares about whom.  I’ve already created two groups, one for my family (group of 5) and one for my college roommates (group of 7), two groups of people that I trust completely.  While not all groups will reflect such tight bonds, it should be easy to tell the difference.  For example, groups of 400 clearly reflect weaker ties than groups of 40, which are still weaker than groups of 4.  There’s no reason to create a group of 4 unless the ties are strong.

Second, Facebook allows users to add friends to Groups without requiring confirmation.  This means that power Facebook users will quickly help Groups become ubiquitous.

Third, developers can see groups details — including the group name, member list, and stream of posts — via the “user_groups” permission.  Previously, this permission wasn’t worth much, but now it promises great insights into which connections really matter.

And so, the Facebook platform takes another important step to help high-value applications.

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