Facebook Has One Big Problem in Its Quest to Transform Itself

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Photo: Facebook

Facebook this morning bolted yet another feature onto its framework, a mishmash known as Groups for Pages. Essentially, you can now create subforums within a Facebook Page, creating a space for continued discussion and debate away from the standard posts that appear on Pages. It lets people know that “this is the official Facebook forum for the thing you like.”

The idea, Facebook chief product officer Chris Cox said, came from a group established by the Washington Post in which readers could speak directly with writers and editors about stories. In other words, it’s useful for brand engagement — the more you interact, the more Facebook is able to turn your activity into revenue. The unstated motivation for Facebook has been that, as users grow more and more reluctant to post publicly or widely, they are retreating to small group texts and ephemeral posting options like Snapchat (and now Instagram). It behooves Facebook to offer smaller, private spaces to motivate its users to remain active on the service.

That’s a cynical way of looking at it. The idealistic stance is that it gets people more active and engaged in things that they truly care about. “If you are an artist, a business, a brand, or a newspaper, you can now create fan clubs and groups centered around your super-fans,” Cox wrote. “There are over 70M Pages on Facebook so we hope this unlocks a lot of goodness.”

While Cox’s post highlights what it means for the types of Pages that we’d nebulously group together as “brands,” Mark Zuckerberg took a more techno-utopian approach. He highlighted the work of AddictionUnscripted.com, whose offshoot group has more than 45,000 members. “In our civic discussion we most often focus on our social safety net,” he wrote, “but I’ve found that our communities are often just as important for taking care of us, and we need to focus just as much time on building them.”

I don’t doubt that Zuckerberg thinks his Groups product can help people (though I do think, for obvious reasons, they are minimizing how it helps the site’s financials), but one large aspect that the site doesn’t yet have a solution for is its continued requirement of real-world identifiers. Facebook’s terms require that users post under their real names and photos, and contain no mechanisms for anonymous or pseudonymous posting.

There are as many risks to offering online anonymity as there are incentives for Facebook. It opens up avenues of harassment that are generally minimized by the real-identity requirement; people are less likely to say or do heinous stuff when their real name is attached to it. But it also makes people more guarded, less open, and less willing to speak without fear of reprisal. For all of the thousands of people speaking openly about addiction online, how many more are staying silent? Maybe it’s because they don’t want to speak in an open group; maybe they don’t trust private-group members not to screenshot their intimate posts; maybe they don’t want Facebook to turn their group memberships into fodder for targeted ads.

The case for pseudonymity and anonymity is self-evident across the pre-Facebook web — bustling, productive communities like MetaFilter, ATRL.net, NeoGAF, thousands of subreddits and private forums, the influential humor of Something Awful, the wackadoo idiocy of Yahoo Answers, IRC chat rooms and Usenet, and their present-day counterparts on Slack and Discord. This is not to say that any of these clubs are perfect; only to point out that one of the main catalysts of online discussion is the ability to temporarily isolate one’s self from other aspects of one’s life.

Anonymity and pseudonymity is what allows those afraid to speak up otherwise to speak openly and honestly online (even if a not-insignificant amount of that honesty is also detestable). In pushing users to speak candidly in the superficially more intimate “group setting,” Facebook could be setting itself up for a second wave of “context collapse,” the mental load of collecting multiple identities under a single umbrella. How does the person posting in an addiction forum then take that exact same username and head to a protest group, or the one singularly devoted to pictures of fat dogs? How do they feel safe that other users, or even Facebook itself, aren’t watching their every move? And without that safety, how do they bring about the open dialogue that Zuckerberg & Co. supposedly want?

Facebook’s Big Problem in Its Quest to Transform Itself