Imagine you have an online service for chatting with friends, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 650 to 700 million monthly active users. Those users put up something like 2.5 billion pieces of discrete content every month: posts, photos, comments, and likes. That would be a pretty huge service, second only to Facebook itself in its sheer size and scope. You'd think the app for that service would be wildly popular. But you'd be wrong — because until now, that app didn't exist.
The service, of course, is Facebook Groups, which will now get its own dedicated app on iOS and Android. And those eye-popping numbers are very real despite the fact that the majority of users have been digging through several layers of the "Big Blue" classic Facebook app to access Groups. "Groups are buried," says product manager Shirley Sun, echoing the same problem we heard from everybody on the Groups team. User experience researcher Loi Sessions Goulet pointed out that for people using messaging apps to communicate with small groups, “the main problem they were facing was disorganized conversation.” Instead of chat focused on simple topics that you can dip into when you want them, it’s a million conversations happening in real time. Groups could help with that, Facebook thought, but again, “the functionality was buried.”
So the team excavated it. Today, Facebook is launching a separate Groups app.
If you're not familiar, Groups is Facebook's product that essentially replicates the traditional News Feed of photos, links, and status updates — but does it on a smaller scale. You can set up a small group that includes just your close friends, family, or softball team. Then that group sort of acts like a mini-Facebook, letting you post photos, comments, and other status updates. Instead of algorithms guessing which news story you're most likely to click on, you just see stuff from other people in the group. And when you post to a group, the privacy settings of your post are predetermined by the group's settings. Lastly, if you want to find groups that already exist for stuff you’re interested in, there’s a discover tab that shows the groups your friend network already uses.
We've been using the app for a few days now and found it to be fast, fluid, intuitive, and surprisingly fun. That's not a huge surprise – it comes in part from Facebook's Creative Labs, which has been responsible for other polished Facebook apps like Paper and Slingshot. Animation on both Android and iOS is fluid and fast, the overall app layout is simple and direct, and functionality (including privacy settings) is easy to intuit just by poking around a bit. It's a great app.
But Groups isn't meant to be a wild new endeavor for Facebook. As Sun put it, it's for "people who are already active today, and want to engage even more." She's basically right: Groups doesn't feel like something totally different from Facebook. In fact, it feels like what Facebook used to be. Using it feels like a throwback to the Facebook of old, back when the only thing you'd find in it was stuff from your friends and family. In the app, you get immediate access to the updates you actually want from your (actual) social networks.
Will there be ads? Facebook’s not saying yet, but for now there aren’t, and that’s wonderful. As for the future, Sun tells us that when it was designing Groups, the team was "focused on experience without considering a monetization end goal."
Groups will continue to exist inside the main Facebook app
When Facebook broke out Messenger from the main app, it caused a hullabaloo because you couldn't access Messenger from the main Big Blue Facebook app anymore. Not so with Groups, which will continue to also live there, buried four interactions deep. But if you use groups, you can get to them faster now — you can even put a specific group directly on your iPhone or Android phone’s homescreen.
As an independent app, Groups also gives users more controls over their notifications: you can get everything immediately from your study group, but your keg party planning group photos can wait (or, more likely, vice versa). That kind of granular notification structure could make Groups useful in a business context — and in fact Facebook has been doing exactly that.
Because it's private, you end up using Groups a little differently. It's a freer place to post photos for your friends and family, but Facebook envisions other uses, too. There are three privacy settings: public, closed, and secret — and each has simple explanations for what they mean. So when you create a group, you also choose the privacy settings. It's probably not enough for you to entrust your (ahem) most private photos to Facebook, but it is probably enough to trust that your unsexy vacation photos won't accidentally get posted publicly for everybody to see. You can also see little green indicators next to the group members that are online and using Facebook right now.
Facebook offers some clues in how it hopes people will use groups the suggestions it gives you when you create a new one: clubs, sports teams, and even couples. On the extreme end of the spectrum, more than one person who worked on the Groups team was proud to say that over a quarter of the population on the island of Mauritius are part of a buying and selling group.
One option we expected to see more of, but didn't, was a default for businesses and companies. That's not just because rumors of a business-focused Facebook app have picked up recently, but also because Facebook itself basically runs on Groups. It has for some time now, to the point where lead engineer Dave Ferguson says that Facebook has shut down its main email listserv last month. Everybody just uses Groups for everything, he says, because "distribution email lists were pretty inadequate compared to groups." You can go through a longer history with Groups, and threads of conversations are broken out.
An email-killing Yammer/Slack/Basecamp/Convo app designed explicitly for businesses may very well come in time, but theoretically Groups could be that app now for some people. For the rest of us, it's enough that this Groups app provides a nicer experience for those 700 million or so people who use it for their non-work groups. "People like their groups," Ferguson says, "let’s solve their top problems as step one."
Groups is the furthest thing from flashy, and that's the point. If you're wondering what ever happened to the Facebook that helps you stay in touch with your friends and family, here it is, back again without the spammy top ten lists, viral content, or ads. It's Facebook with just your friends. Imagine that.
Additional reporting by Ellis Hamburger