Can Facebook Solve The Community Conundrum?
I’ve always been too embarrassed to share these thought exercises on my blog, but today I got inspired to pen down my thoughts on Facebook’s community-building manifesto. It’s a topic that both excites and resonates with me, so I said “Screw it, I’m gonna share this on my blog.” So there ya go. Let me know what you think!
When I was in secondary school, the extra-curricular activity you picked REALLY mattered. It wasn’t just about the activity you did – your ECA essentially shape who you were.
Sports were for the cool, popular kids. Uniformed groups were for “the future leaders”. And if you were a geek, you joined the computer or chess club. (These folks are totally laughing at the rest of us because they’re running hedge funds and VC-funded startups and making millions of dollars right now).
We didn’t know it back then, but our ECAs were our communities. Our entire lives centred around them. We forged our friendships and identities around them.
Now that we’re all grown up, our ECAs are gone but we’re still hardwired for communities. There’s an inherent, unspoken desire that’s embedded in every one of us to be around other humans, to feel like we’re part of something bigger, and to simply… belong.
Facebook Pivots To Community
What does this have to do with the world’s largest social network? Well, pretty much everything.
The past couple of years have been brutal for Facebook. There’s been an increasing outcry on Facebook’s role in increasing depression, spreading #fakenews, not censoring enough, or censoring too much. Most of all, the majority of people see Facebook as the major contributor to an increasing sense of social isolation and loneliness that seems totally at odds to its initial mission of “connecting the world”.
In response, the big blue ‘Book did some soul-searching which cumulated in a 5,732-word manifesto from Mark Zuckerberg in Feb 2017 when he pledged to redefine Facebook’s mission towards building communities. It wasn’t empty talk – Facebook soon followed up with some concrete actions:
- In Oct 2017, they announced new features for Groups to help build communities
- In Jan 2018, they announced changes to their Newsfeed algorithm to prioritize content from friends and de-prioritize content from publishers (which understandably really pissed off the publishers)
- Last week, they announced that they were going to give $10M in grants to fund ideas on how to strengthen online and offline communities using Facebook
If Facebook wants to get people to become more social, then community is totally the right way to go.
However, it’s also a really hard problem to solve. It’s not just saying, “Hey everyone let’s just post more stuff in Facebook Groups, okay?”. How is Facebook going to change the browsing habits of millions of people who’re used to passively consuming Newsfeed content? How can they get people out of their shells to actually start interacting with others? And as a business, how will they make this commercially viable?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, what exactly is a community?
I’m no anthropologist, but I can speak from my own experience as part of a young adults church community. Contrary to what most people think, most faith-based communities aren’t made up of stuffy old aunties and uncles, or hardcore MLM-salesmen evangelists. Instead, I found in my community a bunch of “normal” professionals, civil servants and young families who just want to share their faith in God.
For the past 3+ years, we’ve been meeting weekly. We run sessions on prayer, formation, and sing worship songs. We organise ourselves into sub-groups to give each other support during the week. We share stuff that we wouldn’t even share with our closest friends. We pray for each other. We help out at retreats, attend each other’s weddings, and play board games.
Of course, communities aren’t limited to religious ones. There’re a whole spectrum of communities: Mastermind groups, tech ecosystems, blogger networks, support groups for cancer, co-housing communities, running clubs, etc. But based on my own (limited) experience in a community, I believe there’s a bunch of characteristics that help define one:
Active engagement: It doesn’t count if you just show up, listen, and leave. A true community has its members talking to each other and contributing to the wider life and culture of the group. For this to happen, a community needs to 1) a safe space where members feel comfortable enough to share openly, 2) regular interactions with each other – it’s hard to stay engaged if you only hear from your community once every 6 months.
Shared values: A community is more than just a group of friends hanging out. It has to standfor something – its members usually have implicit or explicit beliefs that they believe in. For example, our BIGS World personal finance community believes that anyone should be able to discuss personal finance in a genuine manner without the risk of being scammed/sold to.
Leadership and organization: All communities have leaders, officially or unofficially. Leaders help to set the cultural norms, the rules of engagement, occasionally police members who threaten the community’s values. As a community grows larger, a community may also need to be organised into more intimate sub-communities. This prevents members from feeling alienated, while keeping everyone aligned with the overall ethosof the wider community.
Finally, my own hypothesis is that the most meaningful community interactions happen in-person. Even online communities occasionally organise in-person meetups – and I suspect that these events are where most members experience the most meaningful connections.
The Incremental Improvements
So therein lies the problem for Facebook: As an online company, how does it account for these characteristics and position itself as a key community-building platform? I’ll lay it out in two stages:
- The incremental improvements to boost community engagement online, and
- The big, game-changing idea that’s just pure speculation on my part
Let’s start with the incremental improvements first, since those are easier to imagine. Let’s see how Facebook might change their platform to better meet the needs of their member communities:
Encourage active engagement: Facebook already prioritises content that’s more likely to generate engagement among friends; they could easily do the same for Groups. Why? Because the more you participate, the greater sense of belonging you’ll feel. Going beyond simply Likes and Comments, Facebook could use Machine Learning to answer questions like “If a member is exposed to content X, is she more likely to contribute additional interactions to the Group in the next 2 weeks?”
Reinforce shared values: People build up their values over time depending on what they’re exposed to. This doesn’t happen overnight. To help reinforce shared values, Facebook could build functionality for communities to drip-feed content to its members’ Newsfeeds over time, just like how MailChimp and AWeber do for email subscribers. That allows new members to get up-to-speed on the community’s values, without overwhelming them with too much content at one go.
Provide tools for leaders and organization: Facebook has already enhanced Groups and Admin functions in October. These enhancements give Admins access to better analytics and tools, and make Groups more welcoming for new members. For larger Groups, Facebook could build Slack-like functionality for sub-community conversations, while keeping all chats consolidated within a single Group environment. (Solving the “too-many-WhatsApp-Groups” problem that plagues us all today)
Use APIs to build habits: My community stores files on Google Drive, blogs on WordPress, and shares stories on WhatsApp. We use Facebook only as a way to share content and occasional event photos. To build deeper user habits around the Facebook platform, Facebook could use APIs to integrate with tools that communities already use like Google Drive, Slack, Confluence, Calendly, Skype, etc. This would make Facebook the de-facto “dashboard” for all collaboration and communication. Together with a Newsfeed algorithm that prioritises Group interaction, this might cement user habits around using Facebook as a way to interact with their community.
Any product manager will tell you that when you build a product, you never just throw a bunch of features together and see what sticks. What I describe above is just what I think a community would want, but further testing and user research is needed to see if a feature is truly worth building.
The Far-Out, Game-Changing Speculation
These initiatives are great, but they aren’t anything game-changing. Also, it’s hard to see how these initiatives will translate to better monetization opportunities for Facebook, which is almost 100% reliant on advertising.
Why? Because as I speculated earlier, the real magic of community often happens in-person. As a strictly online company, how can Facebook address this?
A clue may lie in a science-fiction bestseller Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – a book given to every employee who works at Facebook’s VR company, Oculus. The book talks about a dystopian future where every single person is connected to a humongous virtual universe called the Oasis. The Oasis is so awesome and so realistic that everyone prefers to spend their time immersed in it, rather than in the crappy real world.
Now, even though VR technology isn’t quite there yet, it’s not hard to imagine how this could be a real possibility in say, 3-10 years. If every person in the world was connected to a giant, realistic VR universe, there are loads of possibilities:
Community interactions can happen “in-person”: If there’s no experiential difference between meeting virtually and meeting in real life, think about how this could transform online Groups. Geography would no longer be a barrier. This is more than just about seeing the other person’s face. Remember: an ideal VR world would be so realistic that you could have nuance-filled conversations, read body language, and even experience the sensation of say, giving a hug or a fist-bump. This provides a way deeper dimensionality than a comments, likes or emojis.
Immersive virtual environments: The cool thing about VR is that you could theoretically create any sort of environment you want – your community could meet in a forest, in a sales office, in a church, in the 1980s, etc. These shared “experiences” are often way better at reinforcing shared values than any content will ever be. Not only that, but members across the globe can then have similar experiences, which leads to further entrenching of core values.
Hardcoded rules to help leaders organise: Rules can be hardcoded into the virtual environments in which communities meet. For example, there are some zones in the Oasis (like schools) which prohibit your avatar from fighting. So community leaders can set their virtual environments to prohibit say, explicit language, and automatically police members who violate those rules.
Monetisation opportunities based on a “freemium” model: Facebook could operate a “Freemium” model where it’s free to have an account, but costs money if you wish to upgrade to cooler clothes and tools (kinda like Pokemon Go and various MMOGs). An entire economy can be created around virtual products like these. Advertising and product placements could also be easily coded in, while feeling a lot more native to the overall experience.
The Master Plan (And Why It May Not Play Out As Planned)
Putting it all together, here is my hypothetical Facebook master plan:
- Change user habits so that the majority of online community interaction (content, event planning, discussions, etc) happens through the Facebook/WhatsApp/Messenger ecosystem
- Get Oculus to become commercially viable
- Build Group, WhatsApp and Messenger functionality into Oculus to make it seamless to switch from online Groups to virtual “in-person” Groups
- Make the VR universe so awesome that people actually prefer to interact virtually
By doing so, Facebook will become more than just the world’s biggest publisher – it will become the key intermediary for social interaction.
If you’re like me, reading the above paragraph might make you feel simultaneously excited and uncomfortable. As awesome as VR sounds, will we really be reduced to a society that relies on a virtual world just to be connected to another human being? Will Facebook become an evil monopoly in a dystopian future?
I don’t think reality will ever be that extreme.
Firstly, there are some life events which cannot be replaced by mere experiential sensations, no matter how realistic. Examples: Marriage, sex (within the marital bond), raising children, and religious rites. These situations are embedded with rich, deep meanings and require you to be physically PRESENT. It’s simply impossible to replace the significance of these events with simulated experiences. For example, I can’t see a situation where a virtual marriage will ever be accepted as a REAL marriage, no matter how realistic the experience may be.
Secondly, there are forces at play that will likely curb monopolistic behaviour: The rise of blockchain and increasing government regulation being two of them. There have been an increasing number of voices clamouring for a “new internet” which isn’t controlled by a handful of intermediaries (like what Pied Piper wants to build in Silicon Valley Season 4). Whoever builds the new VR universe will likely function as a platform builder and be compensated accordingly, but will probably find it impossible to monopolise every single experience and transaction.
Putting those fears aside, I do think VR will in fact be a boon for community building. The main driver of social isolation, depression and all the other “Facebook problems” today often stem from the fact that its users are just passively consuming information on their feeds.
By moving online interactions to the virtual world, that adds way more dimensionality to social interactions: Users can actually talk and interact with each other, and build communities without worrying about geography. As long as there are safeguards in place to ensure that people are talking to real people and not bots, it just might be the killer app for community-building.
10 years ago, we had no idea that we’d be fully immersed in our mobile phones today. Is it so hard to imagine that 10 years from now, we’d be fully immersed in a realistic virtual world for all our online interactions?
Of course, this is all pure speculation and I might be wayyyyy of the mark.
What do you think? I’d love to hear from you – leave a comment below.