Facebook wants to shift its focus to 'meaningful' online communities and connections

In the Facebook Communities Summit Wednesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg moderated a panel to discuss the potential for social media to 'build community' across the world.

Nam Y. Huh/AP
Facebook group administrators Lola Omolola, Erin Schatteman, and Janet Sanchez (l. to r.) speak on a panel with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about 'meaningful' online groups during the Facebook Communities Summit in Chicago, June 21, 2017.

At Facebook, mere "sharing" is getting old. Finding deeper meaning in online communities is the next big thing.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg is no longer satisfied with helping people share baby pictures and live video – or fake news and hate symbols – via the social network he created. So the Facebook founder wants to bring more meaning to its nearly 2 billion users by nudging them into online groups that bring together people with common passions, problems and ambitions.

Much like the creation of Facebook itself – the largest social-engineering project in history – that shift could have broad and unanticipated consequences. Facebook will apply the same powerful computer algorithms that made its service irresistible to so many people to the task of nudging users toward groups they'll find equally appealing.

That would also have the effect of encouraging people to spend more time on Facebook, which could boost the company's profits. While the company doesn't currently place ads in its groups, it "can't speak to future plans," Alex Deve, the product director for Facebook Groups, said in a statement.

Advertising is virtually Facebook's only source of revenue; it brought in almost $27 billion dollars in 2016, 57 percent more than the previous year.

The search for meaning

The shift comes as Facebook continues to grapple with the darker side of connecting the world, from terrorist recruitment to videos of murder and suicides to propaganda intended to disrupt elections around the world. For Mr. Zuckerberg, using his social network to "build community" and "bring the world closer together" – two phrases from Facebook's newly updated mission statement – is a big part of the answer.

"When you think of the social structure of the world, we are probably one of the larger institutions that can help empower people to build communities," Zuckerberg said in a recent interview at the company's offices in Menlo Park, Calif. "There, I think we have a real opportunity to help make a difference."

Zuckerberg outlined his latest vision at a "communities summit" held Thursday in Chicago. It's the company's first gathering for the people who run millions of groups on Facebook, a feature the company rolled out years ago to little fanfare. That's all changing now.

For those who have never come across them, Facebook groups are ad hoc collections of people united by a single interest, who can use the service's group features for sharing thoughts and photos, offering support and organizing events. Originally conceived as a way for small circles of friends and family to communicate more privately, groups have evolved over the years to encompass hobbies, medical conditions, military service, pets, parenthood, and just about anything else you could think of.

To Zuckerberg, the effort to foster "meaningful" communities reflects his recent interest in ways Facebook can make the world a less divisive place, one that emerged following the fractious 2016 presidential election. He has previously talked about the need to bring people together in both a lengthy manifesto he published earlier this year and during a commencement address at Harvard University last month.

'Meaning,' Facebook style

That's the theory. Practice is something else.

Data-driven to its core, Facebook has quantified "meaning" so it can be sure people are getting more of it. (As an oft-repeated saying in the tech industry has it, "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it.") And what Facebook aims to maximize is the time people spend in its online groups.

In fact, Facebook explicitly defines a "meaningful" group as one that someone spends at least 30 minutes a week in. The company estimates that 130 million of its users are in such groups, and wants that number to exceed a billion people within the next five years.

The company has already been quietly tweaking its algorithms to include more recommendations about groups that users might want to join. Those changes already have boosted the number of people in "meaningful" groups by 50 percent over the past six months, Zuckerberg said.

Of course, anything that keeps people coming back to Facebook gives its algorithms more opportunities to learn about their interests and gather other personal data that helps sell advertising in other parts of its network, according to analysts.

"It's really simple economics: If users are spending time on Facebook, they're seeing more ads," says eMarketer analyst Debra Williamson. "Increasing user engagement is a necessity for Facebook. It gives them more room to place advertising and to generate revenue."

Zuckerberg, however, stresses the emotional and cultural aspects of groups. "So this big question we have been asking is, 'So, if there 2 billion people on Facebook, why are there only [130 million] in meaningful communities?'" he said. "If we can get that to 1 billion, we will have reversed the whole declining trend for decades and start re-growing it to strengthen the social structure."

Virtual communities "can fill a fundamental need we have for a sense of belonging, much like eating or sleeping," said Anita Blanchard, a University of North Carolina at Charlotte professor of psychology who has been studying them for 20 years. Her research has shown that online communities can make people less intolerant of opposing viewpoints because "they get you out of your own clothes and make connections across the US, making you realize you can get along with people with different beliefs."

For Sarah Giberman, an artist and parent who lives in Arlington, Texas, a meaningful group is one "that serves a need in your life, that fills some space that would otherwise feel vacant."

"I spend a lot more time on Facebook because of the groups than I would otherwise," she said. "Especially with the current sociopolitical climate, I'm not comfortable being very open in my regular newsfeed."

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