Facebook Groups: You saw it here first

October 11, 2010: 1:01 PM ET

Facebook's "Groups" refresh takes a slide from one participant in Fortune's privacy redesign bake-off.

A new Facebook Group. Photo: Facebook/Daniel Chai

When Facebook Groups launches, users will have more control over privacy and sharing with the ability to grant subcircles of friends customized access to post updates and media without the need for friends' approval or confirmation.

Privacy issues aside, we applaud Facebook for giving its hundreds of millions of users these new features. But if eagle-eyed Fortune readers recall, we proposed the idea of a Groups-like feature months ago. Back in May, we approached several notable user-interface designers to offer mockups aimed at simplifying what some viewed as Facebook's then-obtused privacy settings.

One proposal in particular, from inspireUX designer Catriona Cornett stood out, not just for its thoroughness, but also for its prescience. Cornett offered a comprehensive redesign that included features similar to what Facebook Groups will offer, letting users designate who can view what based on group lists and settings. We revisited Cornett's proposal and included the highlights here.

Who can see what?

Proposed "Manage Friends" section, "Who can see what?" tab. Photo: Catriona Cornett

Prior to Facebook's most recent settings update, it was very difficult to see who can actually view various aspects of your profile and the items you've posted. (Some might argue that's still sort of the case.) Those options were buried, and you had to really dig to find that "View As" option.

Much in the same way Groups will allow you to create smaller social circles and select what they have access to, Cornett's "Who can see what?" tab, under a dedicated section for managing friends, would let users very quickly filter friend lists to figure out who can see what information and then potentially change the settings if they're not comfortable with them seeing certain things like say, political views, sexual leanings, interests and likes.

Smart Lists

Proposed "Manage Friends" section, "Smart Lists" tab. Photo: Catriona Cornett

While Cornett believes Groups will help facilitate conversation, event planning and document sharing, she thinks the feature still doesn't go far enough.

"Facebook lets you make friend lists, but they're static unless you manually update them," she told us back in May. In her proposal, she implemented another tab under the section for managing your friends called "Smart Lists" that would automatically create and automatically update based on people's profile information. So if coworkers have the company listed in their profile information, Facebook will be able to discern that they're your current coworkers, and it could keep this list updated so you don't have to actually manage this list on your own. In other words, you wouldn't have to remember to add a new coworker to a particular coworkers smart list -- Facebook would do that for you.

As Facebook pointed out when Groups was announced, a machine cannot completely accurately define your social communities. Cornett agrees her solution was far from foolproof, but the two-fold benefits still beat Groups's. With some smart programming in place, the system could actively help users define and maintain these lists over time while still ultimately leaving overall list management in the hands of the individual user.

Privacy Toolbar

Privacy Toolbar. Photo: Catriona Cornett

The main idea of the Privacy Toolbar was to give users easy access to their settings without being "in-your-face" about it. When users do something -- update their status, tag a photo -- this compact bar would become active and present a message as to how that action may potentially affect their privacy in some way. The gauge with the arrow on the left side of the toolbar provides a visual, quick look at where your privacy settings currently stand so you're able to see how secure you are and the kind of access your friends, as well as the public, have to your information. So if you're about to submit a status update about your job like say, "I had a horrible day at work today," the toolbar would warn you first to check the privacy settings related to that action before you actually submit the information and potentially do some irreparable damage.

It should be noted that Groups's settings will only apply to the smaller circles that users create. But  even then, Cornett thinks the settings will ultimately prove problematic.

"There's danger in leaving control of each Group in the hands of all of its members," she says. Since Group members do not have to approve the addition of new members, and users have to opt-out instead of opt-in to Group membership, the model starts to break down for communities where members have different expectations of who should and should not be a part of a Group. As the Group grows based on each individual members' idea of who should be a member, the chance of sharing information to unwanted members increases.

So while Facebook Groups ultimately offers users further power, it will also leave them vulnerable in other ways. (Confidential to Mark Z. in Palo Alto: Consider friending Catriona C. if you want someone who really understands privacy and how to fix these flaws.)

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JP Mangalindan
JP Mangalindan
Writer, Fortune

JP Mangalindan is a San Francisco-based writer at Fortune, covering Silicon Valley. Since joining in 2010, he has written on a wide array of topics, from the turnaround of eBay to the evolution of net neutrality. A graduate of Fordham University, Mangalindan has also written for GQ, Popular Science, and Entertainment Weekly.

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