After Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg debuted a new Groups tool to encourage more private and directed interactions between subsets of his more than 500 million users on Wednesday, he sat down with me and Groups product manager Justin Shaffer (who just joined the company after it bought his startup Hot Potato a couple months ago).
Zuckerberg talked a bit more about how he expects people to use Groups, including as a corporate tool. We also spent a good portion of the conversation talking about Facebook’s somewhat unusual but very consistent strategy of acquiring young startups, shutting down their products, and putting their CEO in charge of Facebook projects. Zuckerberg said he expects to continue this strategy and perhaps even ramp it up, because it’s working so far.
This is a slightly edited transcript.
How People Will Use Facebook Groups
Liz Gannes: You said earlier that Groups will be additive to the Facebook experience, but it has to replace some form of communication. If I’m spending my time on Facebook telling my family what I’m doing then I’m not telling my random high school classmates who now currently comment on my status.
Mark Zuckerberg: I think right now there just aren’t the tools that give people the opportunity to express themselves in the ways that they want. If you get married, you want to tell all your friends and this isn’t going to take away from that. But a lot of people just don’t want to bother all their friends about something, or don’t think something is suitable for all of them, so then they just wouldn’t share it at all. But now with Groups they’ll be able to. So I think it will be additive. If anything it might take away from other email lists that people have. I remember when I was in college, the clubs I was a member of had email lists, and within companies people use them, but outside of companies I’m not sure people use email lists.
Gannes: At GigaOM we use an internal communication tool, Socialcast*, and it replaces email in a way I can see Facebook Groups replacing email for friends.
Zuckerberg: Yeah, well maybe this will replace Socialcast! [laughs] Not today, this isn’t designed to be an enterprise product.
Gannes: While I was waiting for this meeting I was seeing people already start to abuse Groups because you can add any friend to them. I know that being able to tag a friend without them necessarily clicking on a dialog to accept was a crucial feature for Facebook photo tagging and Places tagging. But I got added to a group for “people annoyed by Facebook Groups” and someone said, “By being added to this group you become annoyed, and thus it’s correct that you’re in the group! It’s a self-supporting mobius-strip of a concept.” I thought that was witty — though obviously you hope your friends treat you with respect and don’t invite you to silly groups. But can you talk about that product decision?
Zuckerberg: You try to make it as easy as possible and give people control. It’s very easy to turn a group off. Also there’s really this self-selection. You’ll interact with groups that have a lot of interaction within them. Whereas a group like that, maybe it’ll grow, but then what. If you have a group for your family, your roommates, your classmates or something that’s actually useful. The product is designed so that the groups you actually use go to the top of the home page. The other ones will just fall away. If someone creates something that doesn’t get used, then who cares, right?
Justin Shaffer: We also let you adjust notifications on a per-group basis. You can decide whether or not you want email, and what level of notifications you want or it’s one click to leave. And if you leave a group you can’t be re-added to it without your permission.
The Slow Pace of Product
Gannes: Why didn’t you do this earlier? Obviously the groups feature has been kind of blah for a while and friend lists weren’t really working. And interaction with smaller groups seems like a pretty core part of your product.
Zuckerberg: I love that question. That criticism is “clearly this is good, but what took you so long.”
For groups, the solutions that you’d expect to work don’t. Everyone has this intuitive sense that I don’t have just one group of friends, I have all these groups. [The obvious solution is to make lists of friends], but it turns out most people don’t use friend lists. You were just talking about this group that isn’t an accurate, real-world group. One property that friend lists have is they’re all exactly right for you. Groups are this interesting tradeoff where the group may not actually be the perfect group for you, but it’s good and it works and everyone will have them. That’s the kind of trade-off that makes these social systems work pretty well. It’s a little counterintuitive that making a group slightly less perfect but making it be defined socially and in a shared way by a bunch of people is actually a better solution than giving everyone a way to find exactly what they want.
Then there were all these nuances in building it, like what you were saying about why do you make it so people can just add you to a group, and we had a lot of debate around that and all these little decisions that add up to the product.
Gannes: So I was reading this awesome thread on Quora yesterday about you guys developing the like button two years before you released it, but for whatever reason didn’t. That’s become a pretty definitional part of the company, so it does seem like you take your time setting things free.
Zuckerberg: Yeah. At technology companies the world changes so quickly and that’s really cool, but it always feels like stuff is going so slowly compared to where the world should be. A lot of people inside the company felt this way but it just took a while to get it right.
On Acquiring Talent
Gannes: I was interested to see that you had Carl [Sjogreen] from Nextstop and Justin from Hot Potato on stage today so soon after you’d acquired their startups. That’s pretty fast integration of them into the company, and you had to have been working on these products before they joined.
Zuckerberg: You’re the only person who’s commented on this, but yeah, this is a huge part of our strategy. We want to build a really entrepreneurial culture. We have a big footprint but we want to operate like a startup and take risks, and the best way to do that is to get people who self-select towards being entrepreneurs. [VP of Product] Chris Cox has led this strategy and done a really good job executing on it. We’ve bought a bunch of companies to get good CEOs and good product folks, and Justin is one, and Carl and Adrian [Graham] from Nextstop were. [On Wednesday, Sjogreen was presenting new application settings controls as product manager for Facebook Platform. Another example is Divvyshot CEO Sam Odio, who's now product manager of Facebook Photos and led a recent refresh for that product.]
Gannes (to Shaffer): So were you hired to product-manage Groups?
Shaffer: No, it was much more generic. Around the Hot Potato announcement, there was some speculation that I would be working on events, and I probably will at some point. But groups was the thing that we were focused on getting done, so I came and did this.
Zuckerberg: The only real theme is that we haven’t bought any companies yet to get the company. It’s always been because we have a lot of respect for the people involved.
Gannes: Which is kind of motivating but also not motivating if you’re actually trying to work on making something.
Zuckerberg: Integrating a company is a lot harder than integrating really great people. It’s not that the company is bad, [to Shaffer] a lot of the respect that we had for what you guys were doing was because we looked at the product. It just turns out that Justin can have more leverage in his role here than he could have in running that company.
Shaffer: By definition. The math is very simple.
Zuckerberg: You basically want to get the best people into the most impactful roles. FriendFeed was the same thing, I loved their product, and that was one of the strongest signals to me that they would be really good. But here, they’re much better off working on other stuff, so you’ve got Bret [Taylor] who’s the CTO and working on platform and news feed, and other guys are building core infrastructure cause that’s what they’re really good at. And they love it because they’re now operating at a scale that they couldn’t at FriendFeed. Before they were doing tasks for a million users.
Gannes: So you’ll continue to use that acquisition strategy?
Zuckerberg: For as long as it works. Normally I think you do something and you get some good and some bad and you balance it, and I’m happy with every single one we’ve done so far. And to me that suggests we should do more.
*Socialcast is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is a venture partner at True and a board member at Socialcast. Please see the disclosure in my bio about Facebook.
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