Earlier today, Mark Zuckerberg kicked off Facebook’s Communities Summit by announcing that the company had a new primary mission for the next decade. In full, the mission statement is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” He added that, “Change starts local, when enough of us feel a sense of purpose and support in our own lives that we can start caring about broader issues too.” As a practical implementation of this more existential declaration, Facebook announced it was rolling out new tools for Group administrators to gain analytics and insights into how their communities function.
Facebook is enormous. With nearly 2 billion monthly users and more than a billion daily users, and $7.8 billion in revenue last month, the social network is not in danger of disappearing anytime soon. But even given that Facebook’s position in the online ecosystem is secured for decades, the company — which knows better than anyone how easy it can be to topple a complacent competitor — is clearly trying to figure out what comes next. One place the company is clearly looking is Snapchat, the megapopular video-chat app whose most familiar features have been ripped off by Facebook and its subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp.
The Snapchat-ification of Facebook is the outcome of Facebook’s biggest threat: the reported substantial decrease in what the network terms “original sharing,” defined as posts about users’ personal lives and interests, as opposed to sharing all-purpose memes, viral videos, and outbound links. This problem is a result of what researcher danah boyd has termed “context collapse.” Depending on the context, a.k.a. the audience, people behave differently. You might talk one way with friends from college and another way with acquaintances from work, and yet another way with your fantasy-football league. On Facebook, all of those contexts are contained under a single identity, resulting in the so-called collapse.
For a time at the beginning of the decade, when social networking was ascendant rather than a way of life, having a public personal brand seemed like a given. Social networks tried to condition their users to get comfortable posting opinions, and selfies, and “hot takes” to a wide audience. Twitter felt like the place to get breaking news, and Facebook set its default privacy status to public, denoted by a globe icon. In other words, anyone in the world could see it.
But quickly — more quickly than anticipated — the benefits of being an influencer gave way to the perils of having an enormous corpus of stupid opinions and photos available to all of one’s Facebook friends or even the general public. Managing privacy became such a chore that Facebook users began posting less and less, and the network had to roll out features like privacy audits, and even a one-click solution buried in the settings that let a user make all of their years of posting accessible to friends only. The default-public era of social media, in the grand scheme but a blip on the timeline of humanity, has mostly come to an end. Unless you want to build a brand, there is little reason to share things in full public view online.
Compounding the growing aversion to public posting is the News Feed and its algorithmic ranking of social-media bits and bytes. The decline in original sharing has meant the Facebook feed, once the first place you’d go to check in on your friends, is now stuffed with viral overhead cooking videos, political half-truths, sponsored posts for iffy Kickstarters, and status updates about people looking for travel recommendations or roommates. No wonder people have moved to Instagram and Snapchat, which are much more efficient ways to find out what your actual friends are up to (and stoke jealousy).
This is where Groups, the lynchpin in Facebook’s next era, comes in. Groups solves a number of Facebook problems, lessening the mental load of original sharing, and the bugbear that is content moderation.
Groups, if you’re unfamiliar, are kind of like message boards of old, a forum in which multiple people can post comments and have them seen by other members. (If you’ve never used a message board, um, think of them as a Facebook timeline that’s not attached to an individual person or specific brand.) Groups can be as small as two people and as large as millions, and can be public, private, or a mix, depending on the need. The group Pantsuit Nation famously has millions of members but is “secret,” meaning it’s unlisted and invite-only. That’s why you never see posts from Pantsuit Nation appear in your News Feed — members can’t share them with anyone not in the group.
The new push for Groups is a refinement of the privacy settings that Facebook has tried to teach users about for a while. Rather than fiddling with visibility setting for each and every post, as the company tried to teach users to do, it wants users to create persistent buckets of friends à la group messaging. Enter a certain group, and you know that you’re talking to certain people. It’s a new iteration of Facebook that takes its cues from old message boards — after trying to centralize its enormous user base around the singular News Feed and having it buckle under the weight, Facebook is now trying to re-fragment its user base, balkanizing it so that people feel more comfortable sharing. The biggest, open groups will seem akin to subreddits, the smaller ones like an intimate email LISTSERV.
The Groups product also solves the problem of moderating Facebook. In general, Facebook’s posting guidelines are as permissive as legally possible. Specific threats are forbidden, but general hate speech is allowed. Revenge porn is a no-no, but photos of animal cruelty might be A-OK. Enforcing consistent community values across more than a billion daily users from around the globe is straight-up impossible. But, if Facebook can move its user base to private groups, with their own volunteer administrators and moderators, then it can allow each one to determine its own standards. Objectionable content cannot be stamped out entirely, it can only be discouraged by siloing it.
As the brand-centric News Feed atrophies, Groups will take its place, and their posts will likely start showing up more on Facebook’s starting page. Publicly, Facebook refers to its user base as a single community. Behind the scenes, however, it knows it’s just billions of tiny confederations.