It’s always been about groups. Photo of Minitel by Nicolas Nova
It was ever thus: the internet was always about gathering and sharing. Even before the internet, the attraction of being connected was always less about access to services and information, and more for communing and community. The Chicago blizzard of 1978 helped propel bulletin boards, or BBS, into the mainstream. Usenet groups appeared a year later. The French makers of Minitel discovered around the same time that their test bed of users in Strasbourg preferred to hack the little desktop monitor and keyboard to chat with other users in the same building than find out when the post office was open. Two tools survived the internet’s shift to the web: email and usenet newsgroups.
So it’s no surprise that Facebook has woken up to the fact that if it’s stickiness you’re after, it’s better to build your business around people with shared interest than a shared history. (Of course the two can overlap.) As my friend Mar Pages has shown in her Facebook for groups – Everything you need to know page, this shift to groups goes back to (at least) 2017, when Mark Zuckerberg said that he wanted “develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.” Of course, he would say that, but behind that was the obvious goal of trying to increase engagement. Groups had been around for at least a decade (turns out I am admin of at least four, though I can’t remember ever setting them up) but most (90%, according to Mar’s math) were not “meaningful communities” by whatever metric Facebook used, with a membership of only 100 million users. Facebook groups, in other words, were a wasteland.
So Facebook has been working on this, vowing in 2018 to boost membership to 1 billion members of meaningful communities and, in Mark’s (ironic, given what has happened since) words, “not only turn around the whole decline in community membership we’ve seen for decades, it will start to strengthen our social fabric and bring the world closer together.” Overnight it announced that there were 70 million administrators of what it called “active” groups — seemingly abandoning the term “meaningful” — and that there were 1.8 billion people using groups every month. This doesn’t really shed much light on how much progress they’re making, though it’s an advance on a 1.4 billion figure they released a year ago. It’s not unusual to move the goalposts but it suggests to me that Facebook realise that getting from 100 million to 1 billion in five years was a little too demanding, so now we’re getting something much more vague.
That said, there’s no denying the effort being put into Groups, and the boost it’s getting from Covid. But there are questions here that go deeper into the technopolistic world I wallow around in. What lengths will Facebook go to push people into Groups, how will it monetise this space, and when will it move to connect it to a much more active group-based app in its stable — WhatsApp? Finally, I’m wondering where the lines are going to be drawn when it comes to responsibility — will Facebook find it’s becoming more akin to a publisher, or will Groups allow it to offload that responsibility to admins and moderators, and if so, how does it reward them?
how far is Facebook going to go?
So, first question: how far will Facebook go to push us into groups? At the moment groups don’t contain in-line ads, so this is part of what Facebook has identified as an area which has seen increased engagement without monetization. Its announcement overnight was mostly focused on public groups — one you can see and browse without being a member — which will increase their visibility to non-members. It’s also allowing public group admins to generate revenue by allowing them to link up with companies to carrying branded content — sponsored content, to you and I. This does address part of the riddle of groups, which is why should admins and moderators dedicate so much of their time to these communities without any clear way to monetise it? Branded content goes some way to addressing that, though clearly Facebook is wary of allowing ads in private groups, since the subject matter may be sensitive and an ad unsuitable, ill-timed or worse, offensive.
To me the biggest challenge for Facebook is how to monetise WhatsApp which outside the U.S. has largely replaced SMS and is much more popular as a messaging app than Facebook Messenger or any other messaging app. I am a member of dozens of groups, often very specific to an event, a location, an interest or a relationship. It seems obvious that at some point Facebook, obsessed with monetizing ‘engagement’, has to try to lure this group of people into one of its money-making funnels. The Verge reported earlier this week reported that Facebook is now making it easier for people to post messages across Facebook, Instagram and Messenger, an early step in a plan announced last year to essentially combine the three with WhatsApp into a private services platform, not unlike something like WeChat. While Groups isn’t ostensibly part of this, in my mind there’s not much difference. To me there’s a much greater difference between a public Facebook and a private one, than with a private Facebook group and a WhatsApp group. The former is Twitter, essentially, where what you say is by default public, and you know it is (and behave or misbehave accordingly.) Private groups are where you know, or feel you know, the other people on that group, and behave quite differently. While WhatsApp groups are always going to be relatively small, they’re still a huge chunk of our “engagement time” and they’re an advertiser’s dream, as are the private Facebook groups, since they’re focused on a specific interest.
So finally, responsibility. Who is responsible for the content of Facebook groups? Mar tells me there’s a lot of automated culling and cuffing on groups, where even administrators find themselves suspended for activity that looks to Facebook’s bots as spammy. And of course Facebook has deleted thousands of perceived hate groups. So it’s hard for Facebook to claim it’s not responsible for content in these groups, even if most of the actual moderating is left to administrators and moderators, who are not Facebook employees, are not paid or compensated by Facebook, and who are doing the work — often quite time-consuming, not to mention wreaking an emotional toll. A sign of the tide may be an Australian court’s decision in June which holds media companies liable for defamatory posts on their Facebook page. While the lawsuit doesn’t include Facebook, the case led to Australia saying it might treat platforms like Twitter and Facebook as publishers and therefore liable for defamation for anything posted on their pages.
So where does this leave us, and where is this going? For all its fancy talk, clearly Facebook can see the writing on the wall: that the future of social networking lies in shared interests, just like the internet discovered itself. The shift to newsletters has shown that interests cannot be too niche, and that people love to talk to other people who have the same interest. But at the same time there’s a problem: Facebook has lasted this long, in my view, for two reasons: there are still a lot of people who haven’t signed up, and until everyone on the planet has joined Facebook the growth numbers will always look good. But the effort to keep people active on Facebook is like a hamster wheel: you have to keep feeding them compelling content, and there’s only so many foodie photos a user can take. This has led Facebook into rabbit hole not unlike the rabbit holes its algorithms such users into. If you have to rely on increasingly click-baity headlines and assertions to keep people engaged, at some point the snake starts to eat itself.
So there has to be an alternative. And that’s what groups are. Public groups are one thing, but that is not where the value is. That lies in the private groups, where passion, knowledge and value lie. But at the same time, who is in the driving seat for that? If the pull is strong enough for users, what’s to stop the owner of the group moving it to another platform, one which they are able to monetize and which offers more features? Think of a group as a walled garden within Facebook’s walled garden; if people already have to jump over one wall to access it, why not just move the inner walled garden somewhere else, since the friction — the effort required to reach the group — would be no different.
That said, I’m sure this won’t happen, at least immediately. But at some point the owner of a group of hundreds of thousands of passionate users is going to recognise that none of them are there because it’s Facebook, but because Facebook happens to be the platform. Somehow Facebook will have to find a way to lock in group owners with golden handcuffs, or win them over.