Facebook Adds “Friends Not on a List” View to the Friend Lists Editor

Some users can now select to see all of their “Friends Not on a List” as part of Facebook’s Friend Lists interface. The new addition helps users ensure that all their friends have been assigned to a list to which content can be hidden from or made visible. For instance, it allows users to see if all of their sensitive family or professional contacts have been added to a list from which they hide their photos or status updates.

However, it’s not clear how many people might make use of the feature. Facebook has stated in the past that only 5% of users take advantage of Friend Lists, and it’s likely that an even smaller fraction of people list enough of their friends for this to be useful. The Friends Lists feature has been steadily hidden away from the home page — you used to be able to sort by all of your lists on the home page, for example — so now with this latest change Facebook has chosen to facilitate the power user experience rather than alter Friend Lists to be more appealing or readily available to a wider audience.

Users part of this test or who are first in this gradual rollout will see the “Friends Not on a List” option below their other lists in the Friend List editor’s left sidebar. Users cannot use it as a friend list though — it can’t be selected as a privacy distribution parameter for their shared content or profile.

Despite their importance to allowing users to share a wider range of content by restricting its visibility to a subset of friends, most users have never made any friend lists. The feature is relatively buried, forcing users to click the somewhat awkwardly named “Edit Friends” option in the Account drop-down menu. Also, systematically categorizing hundreds of friends is an unnatural and laborious chore.

Facebook tried to make this easier by providing suggestions of friends to add to existing lists by displaying one-click add buttons on friends who share characteristics with those already on the list. It also let users sort by characteristics such as school or workplace during the Friend List creation process. However, Facebook hasn’t announced any significant increase in the feature’s popularity since these additions were made.

As an alternate option of restricting content visibility, Facebook released its Groups feature, but this notifies a user’s friends when they’re added, preventing it from being used to secretly hide sensitive information from a specific type of friend.

“Friends Not on a List” is the first noteworthy change to the Friend Lists editor in six months, though Facebook did begin to allow users to display “Featured Friends” as part of the redesigned profile.  It may be a signal of Facebook’s dedication to getting the feature right, even if only through incremental change. Otherwise, it may just be a token to the feature’s few users in advance of a major overhaul or removal of Friend Lists.

Since those who have created Friend Lists may have invested a lot of time crafting them, Facebook may be wary of making bigger changes until it’s sure it has a solution to privacy. How to best empower users to efficiently manage different privacy settings for different friends is a complicated problem. But if Facebook can solve it, users will be able to share more content of varying sensitivity levels, such a emotional confessions, racy photos, or their location, but with fewer friends, and thereby mimic the way we share in real life more accurately.

Update 10/7/2011: The “Friends Not on a List” feature has been removed since Facebook introduced Smart Lists in September 2011.