Facebook’s Groups are one of the network’s original features. They’ve changed over the years, like the rest of the network, but Groups remain incredibly popular, even though they’re buried in the left rail of your News Feed like afterthoughts. This year, Facebook started to declutter its unwieldy big blue app by spinning off features into separate, stand-alone services. This week, Facebook Groups got the same treatment with a brand new iOS and Android app that takes the Groups that more than 650 million people use every month and makes them easily accessible.
In Facebook’s early days, Groups were a fun, throwaway feature. In college, I joined groups for Las Vegas natives, Pulp Fiction fans, residents of my dorm, and, my personal favorite, a group where everyone recounted the word that knocked them out of the elementary school spelling bee. (Facetious. I still remember.)
Since then, Groups have become a more useful, if not exactly thrilling, part of the Facebook experience. They range wildly in topic, from neighborhood organizations and local sports to national politics and celebrity fandoms. Some are super small, with just a dozen close friends chatting about whatever comes to mind. Others are massive, with tens of thousands of members. The new app makes it easier to manage Groups memberships and keep the conversation going without having to interact with Facebook’s desktop site, which grows increasingly unwieldy with every passing day.
A feature worth its own app
Using Groups on Facebook’s desktop or mobile site, or even in the main app, is a pain. Everything is cluttered, it’s difficult to navigate to the conversation you want to comment on, and Groups alerts are jumbled up with all your other notifications. Like Facebook Messenger, the new Groups app makes the rest of Facebook irrelevant by honing in on the one feature you want to use.
Unlike with Messenger, Facebook isn’t exiling Groups and forcing you to make the switch. But you’ll want to anyway. When you open the app, it shows you a grid of all the groups you’re a member of. (This reminded me there were a few I needed to quit.) A menu bar on the bottom lets you tab between groups, notifications, discover, and settings.
Discover is a new, app-only feature that recommends groups to join based on your location or which groups are popular among people you know. I already found a few to join based on that alone. Settings gives you the power to change what kind of in-app and push notifications the app sends you. Want to be alerted every time someone posts? Easy. Only want to be notified when your friends post? Done. Facebook proper offers these controls, too, but it’s so difficult to separate them from all the other privacy tools you have to manage.
Groups is a product of Facebook’s Creative Labs team, which is tasked with making experimental apps that wouldn’t make sense in the main app—or would infuriate people who hate change—and so far the list of apps has been hit or miss. Ephemeral messaging app Slingshot required you to respond to a message before you could view it, which at first was funny but quickly became infuriating. Anonymous app Rooms, which launched earlier this month, has potential, but the QR codes you need to enter a room or invite people to a room you’ve created are wonky and often don’t work. Another app, Mentions, is designed just for VIPs, so I’m not sure how popular it is. Paper is a beautiful, ad-free version of Facebook’s News Feed that still lets you send in-app Facebook messages, so I’m not sure why its popularity has languished.
But Groups is probably the most useful. It’s an app that will remind you of how the world’s largest social network used to be before it had to cater to 1.3 billion people, when Facebook was still fun.
This story, "Hands-on with Facebook Groups, a spin-off app you’ll actually want to use" was originally published by Macworld.