Tech

Mark Zuckerberg shifted Facebook's focus to groups after the 2016 election, and it's changed how people use the site

Key Points
  • Facebook users are now engaging with more content from groups as part of the social network's shift toward meaningful communities.
  • Facebook says there are more than 400 million people in groups that they find meaningful as of April 2019, up from 100 million in February 2017.
  • The company recently spent an estimated $10 million to run a 60-second commercial during Super Bowl LIV to promote Facebook Groups.
Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the F8 Facebook Developers conference on April 30, 2019 in San Jose, California.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Dennis Neymit, a 25-year-old San Francisco chemical engineer, had been trying to sell his tickets to an electro pop concert for a few days with no luck, so finally he decided to give them away.

"Giving away my 2 tix to TENDER at GAMH tonight!" Neymit posted in a private Facebook group called Clever Girls, where more than 11,600 Bay Area music fans share songs, news, raptor memes and concert tickets with each other.

"I can't make it anymore but hope two of y'all can enjoy their beatz and emotionz," Neymit posted, along with screenshots of his tickets and their QR codes.

The tickets were soon claimed.

"It made me feel better just knowing that someone else had a good time," Neymit said

Neymit's use of Facebook reflects a shift in how many people are now experiencing the social network. Whereas years ago people's News Feeds were littered with auto-playing videos, news articles both real and fake, and nonsensical gibberish from their racist uncles or high school acquaintances, Facebook is now placing more emphasis on content from groups that users join.

"Clever girls" is a popular, music-focused Bay Area Facebook group that was started by a Facebook user known as "Concert Raptor" who wanted to bring people together and give away tickets to shows.
Courtesy of Ari the Raptor

Since 2017, Facebook has dealt with the fallout from Russian interference during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 and the launch of four separate antitrust-focused investigations into the company in 2019. Yet despite those obstacles and significant negative press coverage, Facebook usage has continued to grow, climbing from 1.86 billion monthly users in February 2017 to 2.5 billion monthly users in December.

Although Facebook does not share detailed statistics about how users are spending time on the site, groups give people a new reason to check the site regularly. In April 2019, Facebook said that there were more than 400 million people in groups that they find meaningful. (The company determines "meaningful" through surveys and by seeing how they engage in those groups, such as whether they have friends there and how much they interact with people in them.)

"The growth in focus on groups is strategic and well designed," said Daniel Newman, principal analyst at Futurum Research, which focuses on digital technology. "It's keeping users on the site longer and providing rich, harvestable data for Facebook and its advertisers."

Users seem to love it as well. "Facebook groups are a great way for people to customize their social media experience by connecting with other people with similar interests and needs," said Hugo Cesar, who is an admin of "Bay Area Conscious Community Housing Board" a group that is used by more than 71,600 users to find housing in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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'Meaningful communities'

Facebook began shift its emphasis away from the News Feed and toward groups following the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

At the time, the company was under fire for not doing more to prevent the spread of fake news and misinformation. As part of its response, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published a 6,000-word note in February 2017 outlining how the social network would improve by focusing on supporting and creating safe communities.

Zuckerberg noted that more than 100 million users were members of "very meaningful" Facebook groups, but he said that most people don't seek out groups on their own.

"There is a real opportunity to connect more of us with groups that will be meaningful social infrastructure in our lives," Zuckerberg wrote at the time. "If we can improve our suggestions and help connect one billion people with meaningful communities, that can strengthen our social fabric."

Since then, Facebook has made strides to emphasize groups, showing content from them more often in users' timelines and using marketing to promote groups, including paying an estimated $10 million to run a 60-second commercial during Super Bowl LIV.

"Whatever you rock, there's a Facebook Group for you," the company said in the ad, which showcased numerous groups, including a rock climbing group and another focused on rock collecting.

There's no limit to the focus of these groups. There are groups dedicated to helping people find housing, others focused on niche interests like craft beer, groups that serve specific communities like army veterans, and groups focused on women in the trucking industry.

"It is the new, modern-day AOL Chatroom organized by topics and interests," said Crystal Aminzadeh, an admin of the group "Scrubbing In with Becca Tilley & Tanya Rad" which is for fans of the podcast of the same name. The group counts more than 27,000 members.

"It brings together people from all walks of life who may have just that one interest in common. In this case they share a common love for this podcast," Aminzadeh said.

Members of Soundboks Facebook groups often post photos of themselves with their beloved speaker.
Photo courtesy of Dino Skrijelj

Brands can use Facebook groups to engage with fans.

For example, Soundboks is a Danish company that makes a popular Bluetooth speaker. The company uses multiple Facebook groups to post announcements while fans use it to discuss different ways to accessorize the speakers, post videos of their Soundboks in action or compare the Soundboks to other speakers. Since Soundboks is still a young company, it also relies on people in its groups to showcase the company's speakers to potential customers.

"It really drives a lot people to purchase when they see this active community," said Collin Burdette, Soundboks direct community support coordinator. "Seeing negative things, seeing positive things -- we're not trying to censor that."

So much depends on admins

Running these groups is no easy task. Group admins and moderators who spoke with CNBC said their efforts can easily take up 8 hours or more of their week.

These users pore through red notifications on their Facebook tabs from users who have requested approval to join the groups or reports from group members who have flagged content as spam, harassment or simply off topic and breaking group rules, among other things.

Facebook has given these users more tools to better run their groups. For example, admins of private groups can set up membership approval forms, requiring applicants to answer a few simple questions that can be used to filter out any bots or unwanted users.

"Before I was an admin, there used to be a lot of bots and trolls," Aminzadeh said. "I added the questions for members who requested to join and they'd have to answer them. The questions were specific to the podcast so listeners would only be able to answer."

Members of the Facebook group "Scrubbing In with Becca Tilley & Tanya Rad" at a meet-up in Los Angeles at the People's Choice Awards in October 2019.
Photo courtesy of Crystal Aminzadeh

Some long-standing groups focused on easy-going topics like "clever girls" don't require much work from admins, but others focused on divisive topics can breakout into large fights.

This has been known to happen in the group "Bay Area Conscious Community Housing Board." Typically, this occurs when somebody posts a room opening and others criticize or mock it for being too expensive, breaking out into an online "class war" as people begin to attack other members based on their politics, race or sexual orientation, the group admin Cesar said.

"It's has happened several times when I get off work or I get up in the morning and check my phone only to find a ridiculous amount of notifications, tons of reported comments and message requests on Facebook Messenger," Cesar said.

One post turned into a fight so big that it received more than 500 comments, Cesar said.

"It was a class war with people attacking each other while involving politics, racial issues, discrimination, sexual orientation, etc.," he said. "It was a complete chaos and just because someone posted a room for rent for probably over $2,000 a month."

The company has also come under fire for not doing more to police private groups that are used to distill hate content. This became an issue for Facebook in July 2019 when ProPublica discovered a private group used by current and former Border Patrol agents to make jokes about the deaths of immigrants or post derogatory comments about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Some admins noted that Facebook could do more to help them.

One thing would be providing more support to the admins of top groups, said Thomas Mahler, who is an admin of "Burning Flipside Flipizens," a group of more than 13,500 users focused on the burner community in central Texas.

"It would be nice to have human interaction on a better level with Facebook and the group admins and moderators," Mahler said. "The closest I've had to that was being invited to a Facebook leadership conference, but even that invite felt more auto-generated and sterile than I'd have liked."

A Facebook spokesman said that because groups vary in sizes, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for the tools admins can use for their groups. The company has also taken steps to support group admins, including launching an Admin support page, having a dedicated team that supports and learns from "global community leaders" and creating Facebook groups made up of group admins, the Facebook spokesman said.

The tools help, but admins feel Facebook can always do more to get feedback from admins for useful tools, their needs and any other issues that come up.

"We build communities, but Facebook themselves seems to need to work better to build a community which supports us," Mahler said.