Do all social networks suck at groups?

Web 2.0 is supposed to be all about harnessing the wisdom of crowds, playing simultaneously off the glorification of the individual via personalized profiles and services and the algorithmic magic that happens when individual data is mined.

But inbetween there’s the critical level of community — remember that term they all love to throw around in press releases? I know, newsgroups, webboards, mailing lists: it’s all so… Web 1.0. Is it a rejection of Web 1.0, strengths and all, that fuels the shockingly poor management of groups on sites like Facebook and Last.fm?

I “lead” 2 groups on each of those sites, and belong to many others. Almost daily I shake my head in disbelief that people who devote their lives to building social networks would be so inept at supporting the voluntary *group* affiliations people build through their sites.

For instance, neither site provides me any means of being notified when new members join my groups. Neither provides a means of seeing which members are newly joined. In a group like Internet Researchers on last.fm, I can figure it out because they list members in order of joining, and there aren’t very many members. In a group like the Association of Internet Reseachers on Facebook, with over 800 members who appear in random order every time they’re listed, there is simply no way to tell. Opportunities for welcoming new members? So Web 1.0!

Neither site does a remotely adequate job of informing any group member when there are new things happening in a group. Facebook provides the ‘groups’ link. Apparently, group interaction is not worthy of NewsFeed status — I am notified every time a friend joins a group, but never notified when someone opens a new line of discussion in a group to which I already belong. The groups page you get when you click that link is pathetic. You can’t click to see which new people have joined, you can’t click to go directly to the new posts. It requires continuous individual mining of each group’s page to see if there are discussions happening. You’re continuously prodded to join new groups via the listings of groups friends have joined, but there’s no support for making those groups work.

Last.fm has a similar “groups” page, except for that it offers absolutely no information about activity in the groups. The “recommending reading” is supposed to tell you if there’s new discussion in the groups to which you belong, but it rarely bothers to let you know which group a new post comes from, as though that absolutely essential piece of information does not matter. About the only thing Last.fm does right with groups is in identifying which songs and musicians each group recommends and letting you turn off recommendations from any group.

These sites have extraordinary potential to foster networking at the group level. Yet they persistently fail to leverage that by providing meaningful scaffolding to support group interactions. If groups can’t carry on effective discussions and group members don’t have easy ways to see who’s joined and how discussion is progressing, groups become what they are in both of these spaces: identity badges, labels we can put on our profiles to help categorize us. It’s a grotesque waste of the power of human connection and cannot serve either site well.

And don’t even get me started on how terrible the mechanisms are for searching for groups of possible interest in each site.

Are there any social network sites that really help members create communities rather than one-on-one connections?

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Comments (10) to “Do all social networks suck at groups?”

  1. Nancy, you’re right. Group support on Facebook is worse than dismal. It really renders large groups ineffective and somewhat pointless.

    Interestingly, my class is maintaining a small, closed group on Facebook, and we’re having a wonderful time. We’ve got extensive commentary in the forums, and class members enjoy browsing each others profiles to learn more about fellow classmates.

    However, if there wasn’t incentive for the class to visit the group weekly (I’m requiring a post on the reading each week) I seriously doubt they’d come back. The site just doesn’t seem to want to put effort into making groups useful. I suppose their reaction would be “design a better groups application”. Unsatisfying.

  2. With last.fm, I’d like to see all new discussions from my groups — something like the reply-tracker, but for more than just the threads I participated in — without having to visit each one. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at the “recommended reading” page, and a lot of times I don’t even know new topics have been started.

  3. FYI, I discovered that you can at least view the most recent members in a Facebook group you run. If you go to the “Edit Members” link, they are listed there in the order that they joined.

    Doesn’t do you any good if you’re not an officer of that group, of course.

    It’s a bit pathetic. I wonder how much of a priority it will be for improvement?

  4. In my experience, they’re all pretty bad at group management. I’ve had groups on MySpace, Facebook, LiveJournal, and all those sorts of things, and maintenance/tracking were terrible.

  5. It depends what you mean by social network groups but LiveJournal does offer support for groups through their community journals. Most social networks seem to focus on the one-one relationships that exist between people however the community journals of LJ allow for both a community space and for a one-many realtionship to exist similar to that which was seen on mailing lists, for example.

    In my thesis (available at http://www.ecs.soton.ac.uk/people/kf03r) I looked at groups on LJ and there were distinct differences between groups of people who did not have necessarily have many shared interests and communities which had both a higher level of shared interests and were typified by the users clustering around one or more community nodes. Between this, the threaded comments and the ability to track those comment threads, LJ is noticably more geared towards community interaction than clusters of users interaction.

  6. My simplistic comment, as an old fogey, is that my most reliable, long-standing groups are the listserv email lists to which I belong: Canine-L, which began in 1991 and which I joined within a few months after its founding (so Web -1.0?) and loud-fans (for fans of the Scott Miller’s — not the V-Roys one — music and bands.) The Web 2.0 stuff is just not as clean, efficient, and user-friendly to me, and I have to work more to see what’s going on with them and keep up. Did I mention though that I’m an old fogey? I thought so. I do find that Web 1.0 (I guess that would be the proper word) iterations are a bit more transparent, especially of listserv lists that one can set to nomail and view on the WWW. Facebook groups, to me, seem to be more about fleeting affiliation and less about content, and I felt the same about LJ groups, but to a lesser extent. Because I have to be selective about my participation because of time constraints, remembering to monitor Web 2.0-type groups, and finding nothing going on in them, is kind of a drag and something I eventually stop doing.

  7. The way the new knitting and crochet site, ravelry, works isn’t too bad, as these things go. You can see people who have shown an interest in the sme things that you have, so you can check them out. The discussion threads are well-designed and you can see in bold if anything’s been added to any thread that you’ve read in the past.

    I think it’s more built for the long haul as it were – lots of opportunities to enter things into databases, and I would think that the engagement implied in doing this rather tedious task must predispose members to continue using the site. Over 40,000 members so far, and it’s still in beta.

  8. I can understand too well what you mean Nancy… I’m thinking of a last.fm thread fallen into oblivion that only you and I haunt… :/

    Yet, it might relieve you a bit to know that I learned the existence of the present post… through last.fm’s “Recommended reading” page. :)

  9. Btw, group managemnt / tools / interaction is not better in Flickr.

  10. Hi everyone –
    This is a shameless plug, but I work for Meetup.com, and our site helps with all the things mentioned above. If you organize a group, we notify you when new members join, and mark them as such on the site. We prompt you to welcome them. Group members can sign up to be emailed when there is activity on the message board. We also have many methods for searching for new Meetups you’re interested in, and we’re working on streamlining and making searching even better. So, unlike the social networking sites, our site explicitly focuses on the power of groups. Check it out. I’m biased, but I think it works well. And we’re eager for any suggestions you have, too.