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InternetJuly 7, 2023

How do Facebook groups compare to real-life community?

a purple background with a gorup called "making friends"
Image: Archi Banal

They’re great for buying or getting rid of stuff, but are they also a way to build friendships? In the third part of a series about how we use Facebook now, Shanti Mathias writes about the groups feature. Previously: Marketplace and Events

Sasha’s Facebook newsfeed is an archive of her personal history. It’s filled with different groups she’s joined and pages she’s liked, a reminder of who she used to be. A millennial, currently a public servant based in Wellington, she joined Facebook when she was 15. At the time, Facebook Groups were kind of like “badges”, where “the whole point was that it was named something funny”.  I’m reminded of one of the first groups I ever joined on Facebook: The Same Picture of Jim Carrey Every Day which was exactly what it said on the tin and nothing more. I didn’t know who Jim Carrey was, but I knew it was supposed to be funny.

Next came the utility pages: communities for neighbourhoods and streets, giving free stuff away when moving house, finding furniture. For a while, Sasha worked for a nannying agency, where Facebook groups were a chief source of leads for work. “As less people were using Facebook, the way people found nannies and childcare had to change too.” 

During 2020 and 2021, she tried to use groups to make her Facebook feed more funny. “When I go through my newsfeed I want it to be all memes,” she says. These groups included one of nature-oriented memes and numtots, or new urbanist memes for transit-oriented teens, which makes her laugh as she says it out loud. “They weren’t groups in a social sense – I was just a lurker,” Sasha says. “I sometimes like posts or steal a meme, but I don’t interact much.” For other groups she joined, including ones with updates of political or advocacy campaigns, she found the posts simply didn’t show up on the newsfeed. 

a rack of multicoloured clothing
Facebook groups can be an alternative to in-person second-hand shopping (Photo: Getty Images)

The parade of Facebook groups that Sasha has walked through is a common one. Introduced in 2010, Groups is a key feature of Facebook, particularly as a way to find people who you don’t already know. On Meta’s page for creators, the company describes Groups as a tool that “helps create connections and build a deeper sense of community”. Facebook is notoriously stuffed with features for ostensible community purposes, even if the intended function is to continue to profit from selling advertising against their users’ attention. Despite this, groups seem to still offer the possibility of genuinely finding people who you wouldn’t encounter otherwise, just like the marketing suggests.

The huge variety helps, of course: some groups have hundreds of thousands of members based on a funny conceit, like the 1.7m members of A group where we all pretend to be ants in an ant colony. Others are smaller and location-based: groups for Irish parents based in New Zealand or mediaeval reenactors in the Hutt Valley. Some groups are public, meaning anyone can join them; others are private, where anyone can join at the discretion of moderators; others are secret, meaning you can only join if you’re directly invited. Groups are searchable – enter a few keywords and you can find the collection of Nietzsche discussers you’ve always dreamed of. Groups certainly offer a form of relationships and community, but how enduring are these connections?

“Attachments online are quite brittle,” explains James Liu, a professor of psychology at Massey University who has studied how digital media impacts human behaviour. “It can be an augmentation of your real-world relationships, but a lot of online relationships are solely electronic.” These weak, brittle bonds, not grounded in non-digital relationships, are what makes abusive behaviour in online spaces so common, Liu suggests.

Creating controversy: A post from a Vic Deals admin, a poll by Vic Deals and comments found on the Vic Deals page (Screenshot: Facebook/Dic Veals)

This is certainly true of some of the give-away and selling groups, like Wellington’s notorious Vic Deals, which began as a Victoria University student page and has grown into one of the largest, most controversy-riddled community groups in the country. But the sheer network effect of Facebook, the power of all those people who are already there, are what makes these groups useful, too. 

“I use Facebook groups as a marketplace, rather than actual Marketplace,” says Sasha. “I’m plus size, and when I try to look for secondhand clothing at markets or op shops, I am looking in vain.” So she uses Facebook groups for plus-sized second-hand clothing to look for items.

Renee, a communications professional who lives in Auckland, describes herself as “in the Facebook demographic”. In her 40s, she has been using the platform for more than a decade, and one feature that keeps her there is Facebook groups. At their best, groups are a place for support. “I have a child with ADHD, and I’m in a lot of groups for that,” she says. They’re useful, too: her child goes through different hobbies, and Facebook groups are a good way to find or discard the paraphernalia that a new interest demands. 

She’s also in a group for a particular medical condition she has. “It helps me understand the nuances and hear about the advocacy in the space. I wouldn’t be able to get that from my friends or researching online, because I don’t know anyone in real life with the same condition.”

showing screenshots of "do we have the same boyfiend" groups in different location
In fairness, these groups were publicised on TikTok (Image: Tina Tiller)

Even if the relationships don’t go as deep as those offline, solidarity formed in Facebook groups can filter into the real world. Earlier this year, a Facebook group format called “Do we have the same boyfriend” encouraged members to post photos of their partners, using the knowledge of the crowd to discover if they were being cheated on. A model of how digital culture normalises surveillance? Sure, but not without effect. Moderators of one group told The Spinoff in March that the group had helped one woman leave an abusive relationship. 

Unlike TikTok, which is often Renee’s first port of call when she looks for information, Facebook groups have a “collaborative” feeling to them, she says. “You can pass on your knowledge.” She particularly likes it when she feels able to answer a question about parenting. “I don’t want to be an influencer, but I can share when people ask a question, like I would in a room full of people talking together.”

Humans are compelled to find people with similar interests to them, Liu says. “Basically every minority can find like-minded people on the shared internet.” Digital media allows for more expression of heterogeneity, he suggests: there’s a place for the obsession that no one around you in the offline world cares about, whether that’s a flat earth or growing tropical fruit

Because these connections aren’t as strong as offline bonds, Liu says that group rules have to develop, to police the content that gets discussed. Offline, social norms are often unspoken; online, Facebook groups have tools for moderating pages, setting rules and limiting who can be admitted. This self-policing system is useful for Facebook, since it saves the social media giant from having to moderate groups as much themselves. “Since there are no established norms, there’s tremendous variability in social interactions [online],” Liu says. “The rules depend on who is in charge of that group – some create a form of virtual democracy.” 

the facebook logo on a black background
Groups: another reason to keep logging in to Facebook (Image: Getty Images)

It’s easy enough to get people to adhere to a set of common rules in the abstraction of internet space, especially when the features of the Facebook platform allow those rules to be enforced. But do those rules create any form of longer-lasting community? 

Even on groups where the vibes were good, Sasha didn’t find the connections lasted beyond an encouraging comment thread or obliging “haha” reaction to a judicious meme. After months trapped in “online bubbles” during Covid lockdowns, she was ready for something new. 

“None of the groups felt very fulfilling, so I started looking at Meetup, which is designed as a way of finding actual real-life groups,” she says. “I found it way more meaningful.” She’s mostly replaced her Facebook meme groups with comedy content on TikTok and Instagram. 

But Facebook Groups aren’t a completely lost cause, even for Sasha. Anticipating a move to Austria soon, she’s started joining groups for English speakers based there. “I’m trying to prepare myself to create a community and foster relationships before I go over there,” she says. 

“In New Zealand, I know where to go, I know how to find ways of connecting with people. But I don’t know how to start making friends there.” So she’s using Facebook: she’s already friend requested people who have replied to her posts and answered her questions, arranged real-world meet-ups for new possibilities in new places. She doesn’t like the platform. Doesn’t like that the newsfeed is mostly ads and recommended videos, with the odd post from a group or a friend. But despite all its flaws, Facebook groups still provide. “You try all these other options and there are a handful of people on there and you know that there’s a group on Facebook for what you’re looking for, even if you’re morally opposed to using it – it’s the least shit option.”

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