Confession time: Over the past year or so, I’ve been using Facebook more than ever. But almost all of the incremental time I spend with it happens within Facebook Groups, the service’s feature which lets people with a shared interest engage in sharing which can be public, semi-private, or extremely private.
Most of the groups I participate in relate to animation and comics. They’re wonderful places–both fun and informative–and have come to mean a lot to me.
But when I heard that Facebook was rolling out a Facebook Groups app for iPhones and Android devices, my gut reaction wasn’t “Hey, cool!” Instead, I got nervous.
That’s because the last time that the service decided that something should be unbundled–its Messenger service–it left me a less satisfied Facebook user. With Messenger, Facebook decided to force users into installing a separate app. And even after giving it a good-faith try, I find the experience of lunging between Messenger and the rest of Facebook to be jarring and sluggish. It’s as if McDonald’s suddenly decided that it would only sell fries at a separate location down the block.
In the case of the new Groups app, Facebook isn’t requiring anyone to change their habits: The company says that groups will continue to be part of the greater Facebook experience in other apps and on the web. But having spent a bit of time with the new app, I understand why Facebook built it–and I wouldn’t be surprised if I use it every day.
The overarching organizing principle of greater Facebook is, of course, to sort everything in terms of the people in your life. Groups, which are about special-interest topics, were never a perfect fit for that ecosystem. In all of Facebook’s existing forms, they tend to get tucked out of the way, as if they’re a supporting act rather than the main attraction.
In the Groups app, however, they’re the only attraction. Open it up, and you get a home page showing all the groups you belong to, with badges which indicate how many new items have been posted since your last visit. It’s far faster, more inviting, and skimmable than the way groups are presented in other forms of Facebook, and nothing else clutters up the experience.
Another feature lets you peruse new groups based on factors such as the groups you’ve joined, things you’ve liked, and your friends’ groups: It recommended several which I didn’t know about and find intriguing. It’s also easy to create new groups.
Where did the rest of Facebook go? Well, there’s an option which lets you message another group member, which simply launches the Messenger app. And you can tap through to view a member’s profile, which shows you a view of the Facebook mobile website. That’s it, as far as I can tell. Which is fine, because I don’t particularly need other aspects of Facebook when I’m delving into a group.
I’ve never cared all that much about Facebook’s messaging features, but it’s also impossible to ignore them altogether; carving them off and making the separate app mandatory is out of whack with the way I use the service. But my groups are a big deal. Springing them free from parts of Facebook which are less important to me makes them even better.
The challenge for Facebook is that no two people use it in precisely the same way. If it continues with its unbundling strategy, it won’t be able to please everybody, and the company will just have to make sure that it doesn’t make a meaningful percentage of its user base so unhappy that folks spend less time with split-apart Facebook than they did in its original, bundled-up form. But for me, at least for now, the Groups app turns Facebook into a place that’s all about my own interests–and leaves me wanting to hang out there even more than I already do.