The New Facebook: New Dashboard, Download Your Stuff, Groups

As expected, Facebook's big event today did involve some new design elements. But it's the features being announced that give a crucial look at the site's even bigger ambitions.

The first feature Mark Zuckerberg announced, Download Your Information, lets you download all of your photos, messages, videos, etc. Simple enough! It all goes into a single zip file, so that it's all in one place, which will then be emailed to you. As for privacy concerns, you'll need to provide a password and possibly answer more security questions. Whether you feel totally comfortable having all that info passing back and forth is up to you.

There's also a new dashboard, which gives you the ability to see what permissions are granted for each application and what information it's using. It'll also, crucially, make it easier to handle your app privacy settings by making them more transparent.

The third main problem, according to Mark Zuckerberg, is making sure you're most connected to your Facebook friends that you actually, you know, care about. While he spent a lot of time talking about ways to optimise subgroups that won't work - algorithms, separate friend lists - the actual solution will be a "social" one. Translation: tagging your friends like you would a photo.

The goal is to map all real-world groups in a way that's all-inclusive and can be used in several different contexts. Facebook wants to be the place you go for group email, group chat, etc.

You can sort people by family, activities, sports teams - pretty much whatever you want. And just like anyone can tag a photo, each group can be controlled by any of its members. In terms of a design implications, Groups will live on the left-hand side of the page. You can send and receive email within the Group, even edit a document. It's not clear if that collaboration can take place in real time.

Groups won't replace your friend list, but it will be integrated across the site. Particularly, your news feed will show group activity and Facebook Connect websites will show the activity of group members. If you don't want to be a part of a group, you can leave and no one else can add you unless you explicitly say it's OK.

There are some questions left here; if I invite 10 people for a group, it doesn't seem as though there's much to stop them from adding 10 friends, and those 10 friends to invite 10 friends, and so on. The answer seems to be that common sense will save the day, since no one wants to be on a 250-person email list. You can also change your notification settings within a group to adjust how that group can notify you.

Groups themselves also have privacy settings - they can be open groups, meaning their information is public; closed groups, meaning that it's not; and secret, meaning that no one can see who is in a group or that it exists.

Despite the questions, though Zuckerberg sees an 80 per cent adoption rate "over time". If you're among that 80 per cent, get ready for a quick land-grab for group names. While you can call your group "Famil,," for example, there's only one unique address on Facebook for a group with that name. So once "BarrettFamily" and "Barrett_Family" are gone, I'm basically going to give up on keeping in touch with my relatives. Sorry, folks!

Hard to make a judgment call on Groups without actually, you know, using it, but at first blush it seems promising. Better living through categorising my acquaintances! Then again, most of my social circles have at least one Facebook holdout - which is partly what Zuckerberg is banking on. Either a Group forgoes the convenience of Facebook for the uninitiated, or the uninitiated cracks down and joins the network. If Facebook wins even half those battles, that's potentially a huge amount of growth.

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