New Facebook groups: the good and the bad for organizers

Facebook groups addresses one of its biggest weaknesses for organizers, but leaves one big problem in place, and creates a whole new one. A little while ago I wrote a post about a big weakness of Facebook for organizing. In Facebook, it’s pretty easy to get people to share information and actions in their existing social network. And it’s pretty easy for an organization to set up a “fan page” with numerous followers. But was pretty hard to get people to meet each other, who didn’t know each other before, because of the feature affordances and social norms in Facebook. For an organizer who wants their movement to grow, it is very powerful to connect people across weak ties, and to help new, casual acquaintances to build closer relationships. Even if you participated in a conversation with a stranger in a Facebook conversation, that still wasn’t enough connection to overcome the barrier and “friend” someone you hadn’t met before.

Facebook Groups transforms that dynamic. A Facebook Group makes it possible to create a shared space, with a shared hame, a shared image, a shared conversation, shared pictures, and thereby ways to have a bit of shared identity. While it’s pretty awkward, given the norms of Facebook, for people who meet in a “Drive Less Challenge” Facebook discussion, or a conversation thread triggered by a mutual friend’s post, it feels to me a lot more congenial to “friend” someone that you meet in a group, once you’ve had some shared discussions. The invitation and the shared context seems to lower the barrier to making friendly acquaintances with a new person.

But Facebook has put up two large barriers to using Facebook groups successfully for organizing. The first barrier is scaling. A successful group can easily outgrow the 150 person limit that the Facebook team mentioned at their launch event. And then, Facebook peremptorily turns off features that can get harder to manage with larger groups, such as group chat. Now, it is true that chat is hard to scale with a lot of people at the same time. But groups scale successfully not just because of feature changes (though tools to help), but because of culture and practices of facilitation and tummeling. It is very easy for moderately successful community groups to grow over that 150 person limit, and then be disabled in capability.

And what then? At the same time they announced groups Facebook just announced the ability for *individual users* to export their own information. But that export capability does not exist for groups. So, if your “South Bay Classical Music Lovers” group wants to move, they have no ability to export their contact information, their shared pictures, their shared content. Individuals are free to leave, but groups (at least for now) are held hostage. So groups that want to use Facebook for part of their online interaction would do well to maintain a separate location for contact information and assets that they may want later to move.

Facebook Groups solved one of the biggest problems for organizers – the difficulty in introducing members to each other. But it creates new problems – it’s hard to grow, and it’s hard to leave.

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