Facebook Smart Lists Automatically Group Friends With Shared Characteristics for Use With Privacy Settings

Facebook is currently testing a new feature called Smart Lists that automatically groups friends with common characteristics into Friend Lists that dynamically update themselves over time. Previously, Friend Lists had to be manually assembled and updated — a chore that contributed to them being used by only 5% of the user base. First spotted by Nick Starr, Smart Lists are now being created for the coworkers, classmates, and friends who live within 50 miles of users in the test group.

Since Smart Lists can be selected within privacy settings and the news feed publisher to determine who can see profile or posted content, they could encourage users to micro-share to specific subsets of their friends. This allows them to post a wider variety of content to Facebook, enriching the site. With Smart Lists, Facebook has leveraged the wealth of data it has about the interconnections between its users to drastically reduce friction in the Friend List creation process, and one-up Google+ Circles that must be laboriously built by hand.

Facebook is also now showing a tool tip explaining how the previously available “Friend List Feed Filters” work when users choose to filter the news feed by selecting a Friend List from the Most Recent drop-down menu. While viewing the filtered feed users can manage the members of the Friend List and confirm Facebook’s suggestions for additions to the list. This change educate users about Friend Lists and make manually created ones easier to keep up to date.

Since December 2007, Facebook has allowed users to assign friends to Friend Lists that can used as news feed filters, distribution parameters for posted content, and visibility settings for the profile. However, their buried place in the interface, the slow creation process, and the fact that explicitly categorizing friends is somewhat unnatural made Friend lists a feature that only attracted power users. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the launch event for the Groups feature in October 2010 that only 5% of users had created friend lists.

Over the years, Facebook has tried to surface the feature in more places around the site and make them a little easier to create. While creating friends lists, users gained the option to sort them by parameters such as Recently added as well as profile characteristics including those used to create Smart Lists to speed up assignment. Later Facebook started allowing users to add someone to a list when they confirmed their friend request.

In October 2010, Facebook began showing suggestions of people to add to existing lists based on similarities with previously added members — the closest thing to a predecessor to Smart Lists. Previously these suggestions appeared only in the Friend List editor interface, accessible through Account0 -> Edit Friends, but now they appear beside the news feed when filtering the feed with a Friend List.

Contact sorting and micro-sharing have become bigger issues over the past few months. Google+ was applauded for its drag-and-drop Circle building process that was faster than building Facebook Friend Lists. Third-party developer Katango recently built a product that “auto-magically” build Friend Lists by clustering similar friends and allowing users to export the lists to Facebook. Both products raised the question of why Facebook, with all its biographical and behavior data, couldn’t automatically create Friend Lists for users.

Now Facebook has shown that it can automatically build Friends Lists. Users currently in the limited tester base for Smart Lists have lists for coworkers, classmates, and local friends automatically created for them. The feature doesn’t go as far as Katango, which uses a wide variety of signals to create more than a dozen lists for users such their closest friends or people met on a vacation, as well as those made by Smart Lists.

Facebook very well may improve the feature in the future to create Smart Lists from more subtle clusters of friends and not just those who share an explicitly listed characteristic. The tool tip explaining the feature notes that users can remove friends from Smart Lists at any time, allowing them to expel friends mistakenly admitted to lists where they don’t belong.

The fact that Smart Lists update themselves in response is a huge improvement over Katango and Google+. As more friends move to a user’s city or join their company, they’ll be automatically added to the corresponding Friend Lists. With the friction of building and maintaining lists removed, a roll out of Smart Lists could significantly increase adoption of the Friends Lists and micro-sharing.

Users may be more likely to share professional, nostalgic, and local-focused content by restricting the visibility of these posts to just those they’re relevant to. Without lists for these subsets automatically created and ready, users might have never shared these types of content, making Facebook a less interesting place for their friends to visit.

Smart Lists could also erase one of Google+’s core advantages over Facebook. The feature’s launch underscores a deficiency in Google+’s growth strategy of rolling out to early adopters first without a clear way to bring mainstream users aboard they way Facebook did by opening at one college at a time. As such Google revealed its Facebook-besting features but hasn’t been able to gain massive traction since, giving Facebook time to catch up.