By BARBARA ORTUTAY and MICHAEL LIEDTKE
Associated Press Technology Writers
Posted Aug. 2, 2017
WEST PALM BEACH — Like many people these days, Wellington resident and online editor Steve Straehley belongs to several Facebook groups.
“They’re linked to places I’ve lived, companies I’ve worked at and where I attended college,” he says. “I’m also in a couple private groups of friends I’ve met over the years.”
That’s good news to the folks at Facebook, where mere “sharing” is getting old. Finding deeper meaning in online communities is the next big thing.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg is no longer satisfied with just connecting the world so that people can pass around baby pictures and live video – or fake news and hate symbols. So the Facebook founder wants to bring more meaning to its nearly 2 billion users by shepherding them into online groups that bring together people with common passions, problems and ambitions.
Much like the creation of Facebook itself – arguably the largest social-engineering project in history – that shift could have broad and unanticipated consequences. Facebook will apply the same powerful computer algorithms that make its service so compelling to the task of boosting membership in “meaningful” groups to more than a billion people within five years.
If successful, that would also encourage people to spend more time on Facebook, which could boost the company’s profits. While Facebook doesn’t currently place ads in groups, it said it “can’t speak to future plans.”
Advertising is virtually Facebook’s only source of revenue; it brought in almost $27 billion dollars in 2016, 57 percent more than the previous year.
Cheryl Crowley, founder and “creative master” of ImMEDIAcy Public Relations in North Palm Beach, suspects Zuckerberg may be motivated more by profit than community.
“Facebook ‘communities’ are a continuation of Mark Zuckerberg’s attempt to increase revenue,” she says. “In itself, this is not a bad thing. After all, we use Facebook for free. It’s advertising that pays for the service and communities will offer more targeted marketing. Perhaps the larger question is whether communities will expand user experience or isolate it even more. This may boost profits for Facebook, but I don’t think it will boost people’s lives in a ‘meaningful’ way.”
The Search For Meaning
The shift comes as Facebook continues to grapple with the darker side of connecting the world, from terrorist recruitment to videos of murder and suicides to propaganda intended to disrupt elections around the world. For Zuckerberg, using his social network to “build community” and “bring the world closer together” – two phrases from Facebook’s newly updated mission statement – is a big part of the answer.
“When you think of the social structure of the world, we are probably one of the larger institutions that can help empower people to build communities,” Zuckerberg said in a recent interview at the company’s offices in Menlo Park, Calif. “There, I think we have a real opportunity to help make a difference.”
Rand Hoch agrees. The president and founder of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, an LGBT advocacy group, has found his group’s Facebook page does just that.
“Of the 3,000 to 4,000 people who visit our page regularly, we’ve only banned one, and he was the friend of a friend who became argumentative. We’ve had donations from people who see stories about what we’re doing. We’ve even had a few requests from people outside the U.S. who want to know how to get similar laws passed in their country. We’re happy to pass along information.”
Hoch also belongs to a page for Class of 1977 graduates of Georgetown University – his alma mater – and alumni of Camp Lown, a summer camp in Maine that he attended as a child.
The camp is long gone, but some campers are still sharing memories via Facebook.
Zuckerberg outlined his latest vision at a “communities summit” in Chicago. It’s the company’s first gathering for people who run millions of groups on Facebook, a feature it rolled out years ago to little fanfare.
Facebook is also rolling out new administrative tools intended to simplify the task of screening members and managing communities in hopes that will encourage people to create and cultivate more groups.
Facebook groups are ad hoc collections of people united by a single interest; they offer ways to chat and organize events. Originally conceived as a way for friends and family to communicate privately, groups have evolved to encompass hobbies, medical conditions, military service, pets and just about anything else you could think of.
That’s the ideal, but some see the groups as more cloudy than sunny.
“It definitely can be a mixed bag,” says Scott Simmons, an antiques expert and dealer in Lake Worth. “Some, like the antiques and collector pages I follow, are educational. But others, like one following the goings-on in Lake Worth, can be mentally exhausting. People tend to stray off-topic and are given to lobbing personal attacks.”
Born in Pahokee, Simmons also follows a couple of groups dedicated to life in the Glades.
“For the most part, they’re a showcase for photos and memories of the distant past,” he says. “And those groups actually have rules regarding political postings and personal attacks on other members.”
To Zuckerberg, the effort to foster meaningful communities reflects his recent interest in ways Facebook can make the world a less divisive place, one that emerged following the fractious 2016 presidential election.
He talked about the need to bring people together in both a lengthy manifesto published earlier this year and during his commencement address at Harvard University in May.
Data-driven to its core, Facebook has quantified “meaning” so it can be sure people are getting more of it. And what Facebook aims to maximize is the time people spend in its online groups. Whenever someone spends at least 30 minutes a week in a group, Facebook classifies it as “meaningful.” The company estimates that 130 million of its users are in such groups; it aims to boost that to over a billion by 2022.
Facebook has already been tweaking its algorithms to recommend more groups to users. Those changes have increased the number of people in “meaningful” groups by 50 percent over the past six months, Zuckerberg says.
Of course, anything that keeps people coming back to Facebook also gives it more opportunities to learn about their interests and other personal details that help it sell advertising, according to analysts.
“It’s really simple economics: If users are spending time on Facebook, they’re seeing more ads,” says eMarketer analyst Debra Williamson.
Virtual communities “can fill a fundamental need we have for a sense of belonging, much like eating or sleeping,” says Anita Blanchard, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who’s studied them for 20 years.
Blanchard’s research has shown that online communities can make people less intolerant of opposing viewpoints. “They get you out of your own clothes and make connections across the U.S., making you realize you can get along with people with different beliefs,” she says.
For Sarah Giberman, an artist and parent who lives in Arlington, Texas, a meaningful group is one “that serves a need in your life, that fills some space that would otherwise feel vacant.”
“I spend a lot more time on Facebook because of the groups than I would otherwise,” she says. “Especially with the current sociopolitical climate, I’m not comfortable being very open in my regular newsfeed.”
Ron Hayes contributed to this story.