After all the photos, instant opinions, jokes, and accomplishments are shared, why does Facebook still seem empty? There are billions connected—over two billion—on the world’s largest ego resonance platform. Yet there is a sense of hollowness there, it seems to me, and the service is veering toward hate content, fake news, and negative propaganda. Mark Zuckerberg understands these challenges and is therefore pivoting his approach.
In his letter to the community in February where he first talked about this change, many dismissed it as a knee-jerk reaction to the growing challenge of fake news and hate content. Now Zuckerberg is taking it forward bit by byte. He has even updated the company’s formal mission statement to be to “bring the world closer together.” He is talking regularly about how Facebook aims to build its meaningful groups into true communities.
At LocalCircles.com in India, we have been building just this sort of product for more than three years. We have created the largest community platform in the country, across 200 cities and with the participation of the federal government. We want Facebook to succeed because if it does, it will really change the world. Its sheer size and presence will mean that this change will transform global society. Hence, Zuckerberg and his company should be aware of what the challenges are. We have gained some insight into that at LocalCircles.com.
What is a community? Is it a set of people in your address book? Is it defined by a geographical area, or united by an issue (like good schools), a cause (perhaps climate change), or a challenge (corruption is an important one in India). Zuckerberg talks about the bigger issues that will attract people, including climate change and global terrorism. Causes and issues are powerful ways of building communities, and media and politicians have been doing it that way for aeons.
Facebook as a platform needs to understand its involvement and engagement with these issues. Engagement in an online community is dependent not just on the content generated or shared, but on the actions taken and the solutions found. Facebook will have to define where it stands, and how it will, as Zuckerberg puts it, “build common ground…[so] we can all move forward together.” This is uncharted territory for Facebook. It can either become the most powerful representative of global citizens or a passive platform for ranting and raving. It depends upon Zuckerberg and which direction he pivots.
To give you an example from LocalCircles, the biggest aspect we learned in building a community-based network is that communities cannot be left to themselves. Digital tools are important but a community only thrives if there is action. If there are only rants, then negative energy consumes and kills the community. For instance, one of the most powerful communities on LocalCircles is called ‘connected consumers’. This community discusses issues like poor service delivery, pricing problems, and other consumer issues. While brands do respond, there is always a lot of anger against companies.
We realized there are issues that need to be addressed by the platform because they involve factors way beyond the community itself. This might include, for connected consumers, issues like dual pricing or nondisclosure of expiration dates on food items. If these complaints were not addressed, it would burn the community over a period of time. So LocalCircles took up these issues with the government. This actually resulted in a change in the national consumer policy that all brands had to respond to and implement. So the problem was resolved and the process and outcome was communicated back to the community.
For Facebook to take on the role of serving as an advocate for the interests of its community members would be a real change, and one that Zuckerberg may not be prepared or even interested in taking on.
In case the communities are organized not on the basis of issues but rather geographical areas, the challenges are different. People living in Menlo Park or San Francisco belong to a geographical community, but they do not know each other. They may be neighbors, but that doesn’t mean they are friends. And they will likely not be connected via mobile or Facebook. What would make these neighbors come together? And what would they do once they form a group on Facebook?
If Facebook tries to build these groups, it will have to change many things, beginning with how it handles user identity. A community becomes one when real people are there so that real people can connect with real people. And while it claims to, Facebook currently does not really insist on real identities. This would require another pivot for the company. Doing that would have many repercussions. For one thing, real identity mean that fake identities will be cleaned up, which means the total number of users of Facebook could drop dramatically. Facebook’s valuation, like that of other internet companies, is partly based on the size and expected growth of its user base. Long term, such a change would probably be beneficial to Facebook’s valuation, which should be higher and more sustainable the more that real identities are reinforced. But it would not be an easy effort.
Building a community, even a geographical one, is not easy. We have learned at LocalCircles that interventions are required. In the past, users would invite their friends and family to join Facebook. Now the platform would have to actively work toward adding or matching users to communities, adding content to communities etc. This would mean numerous changes in the newsfeed algorithm that determines the content that users see on Facebook. Those software changes would be minor, however, compared to the organisational changes needed. Introducing new viral content will not be enough.
Communities survive or engage digitally if they are united behind common challenges, causes, or issues. To participate in a community there has to be compelling problems or challenges. Currently, most users don’t come to Facebook for such purposes. Users come to see “How many people liked my photos?” “How many people shared my posts?” The top right-hand section of the page is the most important area in the interface. This is Facebook’s strength and also its challenge.
Engagement in communities is about solving problems. Problems can only be solved if people come together. Some of these problems can be solved within the community, as people share information with one another. A larger proportion relate to outside administrations, governments, or organizations. These groups will only attend to a problem if they are asked to do so by many. Identifying problems collectively is what a digital community does. Is Facebook ready to accommodate and address this challenge? Democratic institutions do not listen much to individuals. They listen to the voice of many.
Facebook groups by themselves will not evolve into communities if they just rant about problems. After some time, the negative energy becomes so much that people don’t want to come back to the group. Even hate groups, when they gain traction on negativity, are typically promoting a negative action like a demonstration or some sort of attack on a perceived enemy. Is Facebook ready to give directions and guidance to groups to ensure they take positive actions? Will that be a responsibility of Facebook, the group, or the administrator? There are ways and means to address this, but Facebook needs to b e aware of all the choices and their impact.
A good example of how the governance of the group is an outcome of the group’s purpose is a large blood donor group on LocalCircles. It has a fundamentally positive purpose, and only deals with requests for emergency blood donations. The community has defined its purpose that only such requests will be posted and answered. A community like that is very powerful, as it is leveraging the best of positive internet behavior.
As such groups grow and become active, will Facebook accept the impact that they may have on governments at all levels? Perhaps a group on Facebook might choose to address climate change, by initiating a signature drive advocating a policy change for the government in China. Facebook will be identified with this group, whether it likes it or not, and will be the entity that has to contend with whatever the Chinese government’s response might be.
LocalCircles learned that there is always a balancing act between purpose and people. Some issues can be taken up as causes, but only in an unbiased manner. It’s almost like a decision made by editors of a newspaper. A story can turn into a campaign by the newspaper when the editors believes it will serve the larger good. (As a former newspaper editor, I understand this dynamic very well.)
In the last few months, Mr. Zuckerberg has shown in his public appearances and speeches that he can probably deal with these challenges. Is his organisation really ready?