Facebook’s dark matter: “secret” groups

by tophtucker

There is a discrepancy in the apparent pull exhibited by Facebook. Among industry-watchers, 30-somethings, preteens, and social media cynics of all stripes, there’s a strong narrative that Facebook is already passé. Viral tweets routinely capture the sentiment: “Twitter makes me love people I’ve never met; Facebook makes me hate people I know.” The news feed makes people miserable. Matt Haughey speaks for legions when he says Twitter is fun and ephemeral while Facebook is “mired in the past.” But, as recent search data reiterate, the site is going strong.

I suspect that, at least among my demographic of college students and recent graduates, private Facebook groups account for much of the discrepancy. In particular, groups with privacy set to “secret”, so that even their existence is private knowledge. Because of the secrecy, I think onlookers miss how big a thing this is.

ImageA very casual anonymous poll of my Facebook friends showed that respondents belonged to an average of 2 active “secret” groups. And, anecdotally, for those in secret Facebook groups, it accounts for the majority of their time on the site — like, 90%, often.

Secret groups are fun, like little self-contained private social networks. More like hanging out in private with a group of close friends. No noise, no junk, no posturing. (This will be totally obvious to some readers, but I suspect others actually don’t know that this is happening.) And Facebook is a great place for that, because the product is well-designed and we’re all already there. Lingua franca.

The mass observed in galaxies seems insufficient to hold them together, to keep them from spinning apart. So we infer the existence of dark matter, which has a gravitational signature without emitting telltale light. I think secret groups are Facebook’s dark matter.

(Or, to mix cosmic metaphors: a black hole could contain whole universes behind the veil of its event horizon.)

This isn’t just about secret groups, of course. They’re just, for me, a particularly striking example of the sort of behavior that flies under the radar because it’s quiet. Alexis Madrigal (in a similarly melodramatic fashion to all this) calls the likes of email and IM “dark social”. We can get more granular. What he described was more specifically “dark sharing”; Groups are “dark activity”. Where “dark” is just a flashier term for “private”, with some added connotations of skewing inferences from passively observing phenomena in aggregate.

Lord knows what else I’m missing about people’s private social media behavior. Like, I think Google+ hangouts are actually kinda big. Go figure, right?

I’d connect all this to Taleb and all that if I weren’t tired and losing my mind.

METHODOLOGY: The Google Docs survey asked: “How many ‘secret’ active Facebook groups are you a part of?” It was distributed by a Facebook post, which, to mitigate bias, did not mention that I was asking about Facebook groups (“one-question survey about how you use Facebook, just because I’m curious”). But this exposition of “methodology” – and the whole post – is out of proportion to sample size and all-around seriousness.

Update 28 Dec. 21:00: Hacker News discussion here.

Update 28 Dec. 21:22: “as recent search data reiterates” pedantically corrected to “as recent search data reiterate” — thanks Sharif!