Facebook has offered a groups option before, but Wednesday's features launch adds lots more options for sharing and communicating. In addition, groups are now private by default, meaning people have to be invited to join by a member. Groups can also choose to keep their names and memberships secret.
The overhauled Groups section of Facebook addresses user requests to be able to break away from communicating with sometimes several hundred people in a their network of friends and friends' friends. As an alternative, people will be able to form a group of just family or a few people interested in a specific topic.
While Facebook makes no mention of advertising, one could imagine how desirable it would be for an advertiser to get its message into communications between people whose interest happen to coincide with a company's products or services.
With the new service, Facebook users can set up a group from their homepage by clicking on a link and then adding in a pop-up window the name of the group and listing the would-be members names.
From then on, members can post messages to the group's homepage and participate in group chats over Facebook instant messaging. In addition, a separate email address can be set up so members can post to the group's homepage, when they're not on the social network. Facebook would send email notifications to members when new posts are added.
By default, groups are private, but their names and the names of members can be seen by anyone on Facebook. However, groups have the option of keeping everything secret.
Facebook's latest features reflect the site's push to become the communication hub for the web. Already, many teens and young adults have replaced email with Facebook for communications with friends, industry observers say.
In August, Facebook dislodged Google as the top online destination in the United States, with Americans spending 685,000 hours, or 9.9% of their online time, on Facebook that month, according to ComScore.