For many people, Facebook groups just aren't that relevant anymore. I'm a member of 12 groups on Facebook, but not one of them has any special meaning to me. Nine are outdated ones from my college years that no one posts in anymore, one is for photos of cute puppies, another is a "new phone, need numbers" that dates back to high school, and the last one is a "jobs and internships" group that I constantly receive notifications from, but never check.
But this dynamic is something that Facebook is hoping to change. At the company's first ever Facebook Communities Summit, which is taking place today and tomorrow in Chicago, Mark Zuckerberg unveiled the platform's new mission as well as some new features for Groups. I spoke with Zuckerberg ahead of the Summit, and he emphasized a shift in Facebook's focus consistent with much of the messaging he has put out so far this year.
"We've been going through this period of really thinking about how our role and responsibilities in the world are expanding," Zuckerberg told Refinery29. "For the last 10 years, our mission has been to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. So we've been really focused on giving people a voice individually and helping them stay connected with freinds and family. We all just have this feeling now that we have a responsibility to do more than that."
Facebook's new stated mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” which builds on many of the community-focused principles Zuckerberg presented in his long letter to the Facebook community earlier this year. (He also touched on this subject in his Harvard commencement address last month.)
"We all just have this feeling now that we have a responsibility to do more"
In our conversation, Zuckerberg cited declining numbers of community membership — participation in neighborhood associations or local sports teams, for example — as a concerning trend over the past few decades. "When you think about why people aren't closer together, both in a local and global sense, communities are one of the primary institutions that help people come closer together," he said.
On a big picture level, he believes that disconnectedness needs to be disrupted to solve larger societal problems: "There's one big question that we're asking which is, 'how can we help reverse that trend by helping people form communities that expand online and then go offline as well?''" explained Zuckerberg. "How can we help people join meaningful communities?"
Facebook, for its part, has chosen to focus on its Groups to tackle this issue. When groups were first created about seven years ago, they were meant to be places for a few friends or families to have private conversations.
Although Zuckerberg said that the average Facebook user is part of dozens of groups, their participation in many of these groups is casual at best. However, there's about one hundred million people on Facebook that are members of communities that are meaningful, such as those that serve as support networks for new moms or people fighting a common disease. Pantsuit Nation, the secret Facebook group that started off as a place for Hillary Clinton supporters and evolved to encompass empowerment of women and minorities overall, is another example.
Of course, one hundred million is just a small fraction of Facebook's over 1.5 billion members. The company is attempting to nudge its users to join groups that are more suited to them by changing how it suggests them. First, it determine if a group is "meaningful" by looking at how members connect and the amount of time people spend in the group. Over the past six months, it has has seen that membership in those groups increased by about 50% when they're suggested to users.
The second way that Facebook plans to increase membership in Groups is by introducing a new tools for the leaders of these "meaningful" groups. Currently, it can take many administrators upwards of two or three hours each day to approve posts and group requests, Zuckerberg said. The new features include new group insights, offering real-time group engagement and membership metrics (for example, the best time of day to post for members), as well as the ability to schedule posts ahead of time.
There will also be a way for members to sort requests by gender or location, making it easier for women's only groups to admit only women or city-based groups to only admit locals. If a member goes against the group's rules with a hateful or discriminatory post, there will be a new tool that allows administrators to remove that member and everything that they have added to the group in one step. These new features are being unveiled to the few hundred group administrators who are at this week's Communities Summit.
Lastly, Facebook is also testing a group to group linking feature that lets administrators suggest similar groups to their members.
Facebook's goals to increase membership in groups and connect people to meaningful communities are big ones. But when you consider how many people are members of the social network, improving and fostering communities online seems like a step in the right direction.
There are also some major challenges with Groups that Facebook will have to consider: It will need to continuously monitor reported posts to ensure there isn't hate speech, and also that there are no groups focused on dangerous or illegal activities. Plus, will people become members of enough diverse groups to ensure they aren't in an echo chamber? All that remains to be seen.
For now, the new features, which will reward loyal group administrators who have put the time into building strong communities, are a major plus.