Its return to the past could reveal the network's future.
Facebook, famously, started as a service for college students -- a phenomenon of, by, and for the particular social setting of the American university. Back in the early days of TheFacebook, a dot-edu email address was a ticket to a web platform that promised its members a new kind of public intimacy: There was sharing, yes, but it was sharing that was confined to a select group of classmates and friends. In the early days of the service, you could post a photo of a night out without fear of your Aunt Millie seeing and/or commenting on said photo.
That small scope, of course, quickly changed; the Facebook of today is full of Aunt Millies. In the eight years it's been around, Facebook has transformed from a students-only service to a humans-only one.
Which makes it especially ironic that, today, Facebook announced Groups for Schools, a service that will "allow people with an active school email address to join groups at their college or university."
Yes! 2004 called, and would like its social network back.
Two things are notable about the announcement -- beyond, that is, the back-to-the-future irony of it all. First, there's Facebook's apparent attempt at reclaiming the insularity that made TheFacebook so great: Between the Groups for Schools news and this week's Instagram acquisition, the network seems to be seeking new ways to marry scale and intimacy. Groups for Schools is an initiative in the Google+ model of social sequestration: It uses sub-groups -- like Google+'s "circles" -- to create smaller spaces within the huge, buzzing sphere that is all your digital acquaintance. The return to email-address-constrained groups suggests an acknowledgement that Facebook-the-institution stands to benefit from intimacy in the same way that Facebook-the-university-based-social-network did. I wouldn't be surprised if the network rolls out similar groups for companies and other groups.
But there's also the school-specific part of today's announcement. Facebook, it's worth noting, isn't just creating groups and sub-groups for the schools in question; it's also introducing file-sharing for these groups "to make it even easier to share lecture notes, sports schedules, or class assignments." And it's a tiny little leap from that kind of doc-sharing to the class lecture videos and sharable syllabi and conversation platforms that are the stuff of online learning. Facebook is a tiny little leap away, in other words, from offering a one-stop digital shop ... not just for the social side of education, but for, you know, the educational side of education. It's hard not to see Groups for Schools, in that context, as a direct shot against the many dedicated platforms that have been springing up to facilitate online learning. And it's hard not to see, from those platforms' perspective, a threat: No matter how great your product is, Facebook has its ubiquity going for it. And ubiquity is its own selling point.
Whether Facebook becomes a platform for educational networking as well as social remains, of course, to be seen. Zuck and Co. could decide that owning the world's relationships is quite enough for one company. But Groups for Schools hints, at least, at the social network's pliant ambition. It could be that today's small little announcement isn't so much about Facebook going back to its past as it is about Facebook finding its future.