Another week, another large Facebook Group closure. It seems to be the latest trend. Hot on the heels of everyone who is anyone telling you that if you were in business you needed to have a Facebook group so that you could build community comes the new advice to shut it down if it isn’t working for you because Facebook groups are over. Or are they? Maybe we’ve just been looking at them the wrong way.

It’s no wonder we’re confused.

Having run groups for Amsterdam Mamas on Facebook since 2010 it’s been interesting to watch this phenomenon of “build your community on Facebook!” sweep through an industry and especially interesting to observe the reactions to the rise and fall as people learned how to leverage Facebook groups for business.

As big names in the industry now begin to close the groups they started we are observing a range of emotional reactions from the participants of the groups. Some are supportive of the closure, understanding that the group has evolved far from the original intentions or knowing that the group no longer provides the sense of engagement or benefit that it once did. Others are outraged, they feel personally invested in the group, have been active contributors and feel a sense of ownership or belonging. To have that taken away without recourse provokes angry outbursts or deep sorrow. Some participants will offer alternatives, such as volunteering to take over the group in order to maintain access to a space that has become important to them.

What is Belonging?

What has caught people by surprise is the sense of belonging that has been created through strangers in an online space. What do we mean by belonging? I think that Vernã Myers explained most succinctly when she said,

“diversity is like being invited to party, inclusion is being asked to dance, and belonging is dancing like no one’s watching”

When group members have invested in a Facebook group, when they have created points of vulnerability and engagement with others within that group then they have moved from merely being invited to participate by the originator. Those participants are already past the point of coming out of shadows and engaging with other group members, they are well and truly “dancing” within the structure of the group and the group’s story becomes an intrinsic part of their story. They believe they belong. Which makes the sudden removal of their sense of belonging all the more profound.

To be clear, I fully and firmly support the right of any group creator to open, modify and close the groups that they build. I believe that part of showing leadership is modelling taking the right decisions even when those decisions are going to be unpopular with some people. Where we are clearly seeing a gap though, is in helping participants understand through language and behaviour the difference between participating in a group and belonging to a community in it’s truest sense. Group creators, however, well intentioned, rarely set out to create massive engaged community for the sake of connectivity. There is almost always another motivator and that is what will define a group from a community as we evolve the concept.

Naomi‘s Thoughts

Facebook redefined the definition of “friend” and now it’s begun to also convolute the definition of “community”. It’s honestly no wonder that those who have worked hard to build their communities on Facebook are becoming frustrated and closing down these groups — many of which are incredibly large, impactful and life changing.

I made the decision in 2016 to move our I Am A Triangle community of over 16,000 individuals away from Facebook, and predicted that it would only be the start. Since then, we have learned of many more similar decisions from Facebook users utilizing Facebook Groups as their home base for their beloved communities.

There is currently a massive difference between the way we are defining the term community, and the way it actually feels to belong to a community. Algorithms cannot build community. Engineers cannot assist Facebook users to find the communities that will matter to them or sometimes, change their lives. It is simply not possible. Even when teams of engineers fully have a grasp on humanities and can identify the ingredients of what makes a truly meaningful community, the Groups product is not meant to build community. Platforms do not build community.

Facebook has evolved from its first mission statement of “connecting the world.” It’s new mission statement is “giving people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”. What Facebook has wrong here is that we (humans) have always had the power to build community, we do not need social media platforms to do this.

Expectations of Community

Expectations around the power of belonging and commitment to a community are also treading on thin ice. When people locate a Group on Facebook, their expectation is that they will be linked up with resources and find an identity or belonging. These new members become deeply engaged and committed (some as super users, some as regular lurkers) and a sense of ownership quickly develops.

Leadership in online spaces is beginning to take the same diluted definition as community. Leadership initially was reserved only for the elite, for those placed in positions OF leadership. Leaders typically call the shots, determine the direction and navigate the ship. Leadership was not something that was assumed simply because a business owner created a Facebook Group. The surge of popularity in online groups (i.e. communities) sees the title of leader taking on a new meaning. Starting a group on a social media platform now often denotes a form of leadership, or at least ownership and a position of “founder.”

However, something happens when business owners, entrepreneurs, marketers, and others are misinformed about the true meaning of community. Even more disconnect comes into play when there is a lack of understanding of the responsibilities of a community architect. Add to that, the reality of what happens when those individuals are not given the tools or resources necessary and the pieces can begin to fall apart. Trust fails to grow in the right ways. The context and building of trust and shared purposed require a longer than normal time horizon. Both are predicated on relationships — which are a long game. Facebook’s only long game interests as it relates to Groups is further monetization for the company, without any regard or intention to the individuals putting in the work to create those relationships, cultivate the trust, and build that community.

People want to participate in something bigger, they want to take on this challenge and they want to activate a part of themselves to step up and step in. When Facebook fails to have the bigger conversation around what is truly meaningful and fails to equip those who are answering the call for belonging, the pot boils over. Groups admins and founders are burning out, closing groups, and leaving their community — their curated audience and members — behind in the dust. The members feel hurt, abandoned, taken advantage of and left in the dark.

That does not bring the world closer together.

Emmy and I are on a mission to change this. We are leading the change we wish to see in the world as it relates to meaningful and valuable community. This means a lot of deep conversations and a lot of learning from others.

Keep the conversation going…

We want our #ConversationsonCommunity to be part of a broader conversation with you, our readers as we redefine what community means both online and offline. We would like to ask you,

“Has Facebook’s use of the term community when referring to its group eco structure affected the way that we perceive community?”

Let us know your thoughts in the discussion below.

Are you a community builder or an architect of community? We’d love to hear from you and learn how you build, grow and encourage your community to thrive. In 2018 we will be inviting a small number of impact-makers to join us as we redefine community and help create change in our societies. To find out more and join the conversation, please join our mailing list.

Meet Emmy and Naomi

Emmy McCarthy and Naomi Hattaway often like to joke that they are one brain split over two continents. After “meeting” on a podcast about community building they quickly realised that not enough people who actually steward thriving communities were talking about how they build and grow communities. They also realised how much they had to say about that.

Emmy and Naomi believe that every individual is capable of making an impact on society but they often lack the support and information on how to do so.

Through #RedefiningCommunities Emmy and Naomi hope to open up the conversation on the communities we are building, gather together the people creating impact through action and provide a space for learning and growing together.

Find out more about Emmy and Naomi.