Facebook Officially Launches Smart Lists, and Special Friend Lists That Influence the News Feed

By Josh Constine Comment

Facebook today officially launches several improvements to its Friend Lists feature that can be used to define privacy settings and filter the news feed, including some changes that leaked last week. As we covered in depth then, users now have automatically created, populated and updated Smart Lists of their family, co-workers, classmates, and local friends. Additionally, users can now add friends to an “Acquaintances” list whose members will appear less frequently in the news feed, and a “Close Friends” list of people who will appear more frequently in news feed and whose updates will trigger notifications.

By building or starting these lists for users, Facebook may be able increase adoption of the Friend Lists feature, leading users to control their privacy more nimbly, increase the relevance of their news feeds, and share a wider range of content with more specific audiences. However, a lack of granular control of Close Friends’ opt out notifications may push users to quickly turn them off or forgo adding friends to the special list, and the fact that members of lists are revealed when users publish to them might scare users away from the feature.

We recapped the history of the four year old Friend Lists feature last week, describing how they’ve never been widely used due to the chore of making them and their buried place in the interface. Their potential to get users to publish content more often but to fewer people is important to the long-term health of Facebook and its ability to fend off competitors focused on micro-sharing such as Google+.

The addition of characteristic-based Friend Lists could get users to share more personal, professional and local content with relevant audiences, rather than spam friends on the other side of the country about making dinner plans, or offend co-workers or family with racier photos and jokes.

Bookmarks, Smart Lists, and Special Lists

With today’s update, manually created Friend Lists, Smart Lists, and the special lists are now easily accessible from bookmarks in the site’s left sidebar. When clicked, they filter the news feed to only show updates from their members. More, fewer, or no bookmarks will appear depending on user’s engagement with the feature. Users will also be able to easily publish a post to one or more Friend Lists, as they’re now included in the new audience drop-down of the news feed publisher.

Facebook’s Director of Product Blake Ross tells us their old location “was not discoverable” and that the bookmark system will make Friend Lists optional for those who want them without “fundamentally changing the behavior” of those who don’t.

The Smart Lists are populated based on information explicitly included in the profiles of friends. Users will have one list of family members, one for each of their work places, one for each of their schools and colleges, and a local friends list of those living within 10 miles of their current city. Users can customize the mile radius of the local friends Smart List using a slick map feature to include friends in nearby cities.

Mimicking some of the most frequently manually created Friend Lists, Facebook now creates Acquaintances and Close Friends lists by default, but doesn’t auto-populate them. Those added to the former, like distant friends and old colleagues, will only have their most important content, such as marriages and moves, appear in a user’s news feed. Those in the Close Friends list will have more of their content appear in a user’s news feed, and each update they post will trigger Facebook and optional email notifications.

Users can manually add or remove members to any of their lists, and Facebook is making this editing process easier too. With a very similar design to Google+, user profiles now display a button allowing for instant admission into a list, rather than forcing users to go back to the Friend List editor. Users can even preemptively assign a potential friend to lists while they await a response to their friend request. Suggestions for people to add to a list, based on their similarities with existing members, will now appear beside the news feed when that list is applied as a feed filter.

Notification Overload and Privacy Concerns

As we saw when Facebook temporarily made game requests trigger notifications, those about other users can drown out more pressing notifications about posts to a user’s wall or photo tags. Ross tells us Close Friends is designed for users with fewer friends, but the site’s early tests showed they aren’t annoying for those with large, active networks. Still, those who don’t want a big influx of notifications may have to choose whether to simply turn them off or not get the full value out of the list’s ability to influence the news feed by only adding a very small number of friends.

One significant privacy issue is that when users see a post in the news feed because they’re a member of a Friend List published to by a friend, they can see who else is included in that list. Ross explains that this lets users know how public any comments they leave on the post will be, and that users won’t see the name of the list. Still, Friend Lists and their members have always been private unless explicitly featured in a user’s profile, and being forced to reveal their members might make users weary of publishing to them.

Ross tells us with time Facebook may add more types of Smart Lists, but only ones based on explicitly stated profile information. The changes to Friend Lists, which will roll out soon, have the potential to bring on a new era of micro-sharing on Facebook if the site can learn how users want to apply them. To help it improve the feature and quiet claims that it doesn’t listen to its users, Facebook is encouraging people to leave feedback on a newly created “Facebook Lists Team” Facebook Page.