Facebook has been generating a new notification since the user profile redesign: It alerts a user when a friend list they’re a member of is added to the Featured People section of a friend’s redesigned profile. The notification is designed to promote awareness of friend lists which Facebook has said only 5% of users create. Prior to Featured People, friend lists were always completely private.
When clicked, the notification reveals all the members of that list. This may raise privacy concerns as Facebook doesn’t warn users that adding a list like “Boring people”, or “Ex-girlfriends”, to their Featured People will immediately notify the members of the list, though an explanation does appear in the Help Center.
Friend Lists, Powerful but Forgoten
Friends lists were originally created in 2007 to help users message multiple friends at once, but later became a way to efficiently control who could see parts of a user’s profile. Facebook later allowed friend lists to be set as the distribution parameter for content posted through the publisher. It then added suggestions and characteristic sorting to ease creation of friend lists, and they were recently reinstalled as a method of filtering the news feed.
Despite being a potent way to refine content consumption and share with specific people, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said “almost no one wants to make lists. We’ve been at this for a few years, and promoted heavily. Most we’ve gotten is 5% to make lists, and most don’t make more than one.” But the December user profile redesign allowed users to proudly display subsets of their friends in the Featured People section beneath the profile picture, creating a new opportunity to spread lists.
Impact of the Friend List Notification
The notification is a promotional tool Facebook had yet to try for friend lists. It could inspire curiosity through a social recommendation. Since users are apt to adopt the behaviors of friends, friend lists could begin to grow virally. Facebook should tread carefully though, as users are particular about what appears in the notification channel, judging from the negative feedback to the tested re-addition of game requests to notifications.
The name and membership of any friend list added to Featured People is visible to anyone who is allowed to see a user’s friendships. This isn’t as concerning since a user can simply remove a list if they want to hide it. But as soon as a list is added to Featured People and the changes are saved, every member receives a notification leading back to the list’s membership. Since users are inexperienced with the new Featured People, they might inadvertently expose their private friend lists.
Users with friend lists can share more frequently by easily restricting content distribution to an appropriate subset of recipients. It’s therefore in Facebook’s interest to get users creating friend lists. Unfortunately, there’s still a wide gap between viewing another user’s list and creating one’s own. To promote friend lists more effectively without leading users to accidentally reveal sensitive information, Facebook could add a warning to the Featured People tab of the profile editor, and a prompt to create one’s own friend list when viewing the friend lists of others.
Update: Facebook has since changed Featured People such that friends are no longer notified if a list they’re on is added to the Featured Friends area of someone’s profile. This change protects the privacy of friend lists, but also prevents users from knowing if they’re being prominently displayed on a friend’s profile. Thanks to Simon for the tip.