Mr. Zuckerberg, who sits atop a $450 billion for-profit enterprise, clearly sees a business opportunity as well as a community-building exercise. According to the company, which is one of the nation’s top 10 public companies by market capitalization, only 100 million or so of Facebook’s two billion users around the world currently belong to what it calls “meaningful” groups, the kind that become significant parts of their members’ lives. That leaves 1.9 billion users who could be brought closer together on Facebook (and who, presumably, would spend more time on the platform as a result).
Groups could also help ease Facebook’s partisan rancor. The company hasn’t explicitly linked its focus on groups to last year’s election, but the success of private political groups like Pantsuit Nation, a community of Hillary Clinton supporters that grew from a handful of users to 3.9 million members in a matter of months, clearly showed that some users preferred to hang out in groups of like-minded people.
Libby Chamberlain, the founder of Pantsuit Nation, started the group before last year’s election and now oversees a team of 30 moderators who wade through thousands of submitted posts every week, removing comments that are hostile or disparaging.
“For a lot of people, this is a group that has a lot of people who identify as liberals within conservative spaces, or people who might not want their Facebook friends to know their political leanings,” Ms. Chamberlain told me in an interview. “We don’t call it a safe space — it’s a platform for like-minded progressives to share stories, resources and calls to action.”
Pantsuit Nation is a secret group, meaning that users need an invitation from a current member to join. But for other types of Facebook enclaves, known as “closed” groups, joining is as simple as clicking a button and waiting for a moderator to approve the request. Despite knowing that I was a journalist, most closed groups let me in with few questions asked. (One notable exception was the group for owners of Ford F100 pickup trucks, which invited me in, then booted me after concluding that my employer was “fake news.”)
Facebook’s gargantuan size means that there’s a group for nearly any conceivable interest, no matter how niche. Want to talk shop with other equine veterinarians? Just join Horse Vet Corner (7,865 members). Want to trade tips with fellow model train buffs? Come on over to N Scale Model Trains (6,212 members).
Some of the groups I joined were reminiscent of the message boards and fan forums that populated the early internet. A group called Wine Memes for Wine Moms (6,846 members) offered funny graphics and jokes about the lives of maternal oenophiles. Frugal Full-Time R.V.ers (12,899 members) offered tips on finding cheap pit stops along major roadways, and What’s Wrong With My Plant? (20,385 members) featured amateur gardeners sharing photos of their ailing shrubs with fellow green thumbs.
Other groups contained more intimate content. Like the Infidelity Support Group (12,948 members), in which partners of unfaithful spouses traded stories and messages of sympathy. Or Warrior Village (2,554 members), a support group for military veterans with behavioral health issues. For people going through tough times, finding kindred spirits inside private Facebook groups can make the social network feel less lonely.
Private groups can also provide a refuge from Facebook’s less savory elements. Matt Prestbury, a Baltimore-based preschool teacher and father of four, started a group called Black Fathers in 2009, out of frustration with negative portrayals of African-American parents in the media. He wanted to create a space on Facebook where black fathers could talk openly without fear of racists or trolls butting in. The group, now with more than 27,000 members, is a hyper-earnest, incredibly positive place where fathers use hashtags like #BlackLove and brag about their children’s accomplishments.
“I wanted to create a real collective as fathers, where we could connect and be resources to each other,” Mr. Prestbury told me.
Of course, like all social media platforms, Facebook can be abused. I also saw private groups that spread misinformation, harassed people and encouraged harmful behavior. In Flat Earth — No Trolls (22,538 members), members shared unscientific evidence that the world was indeed flat and mocked “globers” who claimed otherwise. In a political group called Pinochet’s Anti-SJW Beach Resort (36,059 members), members cruelly evaluated the physical appearance of women and made racist and anti-Semitic jokes.
Arguably, by encouraging a shift to private groups, Facebook is risking becoming a haven for these kinds of bad actors, a fate that has befallen other internet forums, such as Reddit. Content within groups can still be reported for violations of Facebook’s community standards, and Facebook recently gave moderators more tools to combat harassment and abuse. Still, I joined several seemingly lawless groups where shocking and offensive content was everywhere.
Another worrisome possibility is that by promoting private groups, Facebook may be amplifying the much-discussed “filter bubble” effect, sorting like-minded people into closed echo chambers and sheltering them from divergent views.
As I joined groups, I noticed that my Facebook feed showed more updates from those groups, and fewer posts from my friends and the news pages I follow, a hint that Facebook may be privileging group-based content in the newsfeed algorithm that determines what users see. That’s fine, if the goal of Facebook is to build strong micro-communities. It’s not so great if the goal is to expose users to a wide range of views and experiences outside their core interests. (It’s also worrisome if you’re a digital publisher who depends on Facebook’s algorithm for traffic, but that’s a different column.)
Facebook’s product manager for groups, Alex Deve, told me that he believed private groups could still produce a diverse spectrum of opinions. “In groups, people have one thing in common,” he said. “It doesn’t always mean they have everything in common.” Mr. Deve said that the company’s testing had revealed that users who belonged to meaningful groups, whether they were partisan or not, were much more enthusiastic about Facebook than users who belonged to none.
“People need safe spaces to share things that are private to them,” he said.
During my weeks of Facebook group immersion, I was reminded of how much early 2000s message-board chatter was banal, off-topic or argumentative. But I’d also seen a lot of intimate conversations that wouldn’t have happened out in the open, and I grew to appreciate the need for these smaller, cordoned-off areas — especially if those areas can be carefully patrolled for signs of bad behavior. Whether it’s Self-Taught Programmers (25,809 members) or Kayak Newbies (9,910 members), perhaps the marketplace of ideas could be improved with a few more walls.
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