Once again, a new Facebook feature is inspiring user anger

Brett Michael Dykes
October 7, 2010

Facebook has had an awkward week or so in the limelight, with the debut of "The Social Network," a none-too-complimentary movie about the social-media behemoth's origins. So the last thing that company founder Mark Zuckerberg needs is a new way to tick off Facebook's legions of users.

But that, apparently, is just what Zuckerberg and his no-doubt bone-weary damage-control team are going to have to deal with. The culprit in this case is Facebook's  new Groups application, a feature that Yahoo! technology writer Ben Patterson described as something that "lets you connect with a smaller circle of pals." The feature allows users to "tag" additional friends to add them to a group. And therein lies the problem.

Let's say, for instance, that you're not a big fan of House Minority Leader John Boehner. And maybe in an effort to have some fun at Boehner's expense, you want to add John Boehner to a Facebook group in support of NAMBLA — the notorious club for men who are attracted to young boys — as others recently did to Web entrepreneurs Jason Calacanis and Michael Arrington.

"Anyone can set up a Facebook group and add whomever they want unilaterally," Business Insider's Nick Saint notes. "If a group is set to be publicly visible, anyone who looks at that group's page will see a list of 'members' that may never have wanted anything to do with it."

As Saint observes, Facebook's honchos could have easily avoided the issue simply by allowing users to invite other users to join groups. That would then require the invite's recipients to actively accept the overture.

What's more, some critics argue that the Groups feature, as it's presently configured, will be an open invitation to dastardly Internet spam artists. As Gawker's Ryan Tate put it, "It's only a matter of time before the bad guys figure this out and start wrecking in boxes." Here's how Tate sums up the scenario whereby the security flaws in the Groups app could create a land rush in spamming: "Facebook's new groups automatically email members about new postings. And you can be added to a group by any 'friend,' without permission. When you combine the policy of nonconsensual group formation with the policy of sending everyone email notifications by default, you get a spam machine, which is what Facebook will soon become if the company does not take steps to fix this situation.

Facebook representatives did not immediately return calls seeking comment. However, the company did give a statement to the Los Angeles Times that seems to suggest that individual users, as opposed to site designers, will have to bear the onus of policing untoward activity relating to the new feature.

"If you have a friend that is adding you to groups you do not want to belong to, or they are behaving in a way that bothers you, you can tell them to stop doing it, block them or remove them as a friend and they will no longer EVER have the ability to add you to any group," Facebook spokeswoman Jaime Schopflin wrote. "If you don't trust someone to look out for you when making these types of decisions on the site, we'd suggest that you shouldn't be friends on Facebook."

(Photo of Zuckerberg:  Getty)