Facebook & the Future of Online Communities

By: Delna Weil

Among the first things I did as a new Facebook user in 2006 was to join two groups: one to proclaim my identity as a public school kid, and the other to signal my ire for brick pathways that ensnare high heeled shoes. I liked these groups because they allowed me a degree of self-expression, but any sense of fellowship with the other members languished in a virtual vacuum. Unsurprising, since the groups had no true call to action and we never actually communicated with each other.

Not the case for 100 million people who belong to “meaningful” groups on Facebook today. These online communities — along with the declining state of political discourse and global socio-economic discord — have become significant enough that Facebook has committed to doing something about it. From improved administration features for group managers to better analytics for driving membership participation and growth, Facebook has introduced a slew of new tools to ensure that people are able to more effectively carry out its mission: “to build community and bring the world closer together.”

It might be a business and reputation-building opportunity for Facebook, but the news could also be exciting for organizations like Global Nomads Group. With resources from a company like Facebook being channeled towards fostering more robust and meaningful dialogue across geographic boundaries, there is unprecedented potential for partnership, collaboration, and growth. Three ideas:

  1. MOOCs run by Facebook. If designed properly, these could unleash the reach of organizations with limited resources to recruit participants. While most large players in the online courses game already have beautiful platforms with well-designed discussion forums, even they might benefit from increased traffic via the “suggested groups” feature. For smaller nonprofits that leverage online communities as a critical part of programming, the ability to serve that programming through Facebook could be even more of a boon.
  2. Analytics for good. Most of the time, analytics are designed for for-profit corporations looking to increase the bottom line. But if you’re trying to improve interaction in online communities, many of the same metrics could prove advantageous. From distinguishing activity of new versus returning visitors to a given page, to follows, previews, and recommendations over time, these data points could help 501c3s become more attuned to their users’ needs and habits in order to maximize participation.
  3. Collective impact. A common refrain but an elusive reality, collective impact is defined by structured collaboration among diverse organizations to achieve a common goal. While Facebook groups in and of themselves will not necessarily make it easier for organizations that compete for funding settle differences or join forces, centralizing these organizations will make it easier for interested individuals or parties to find causes to support or ways to get involved.

Ultimately, the big takeaway from Facebook’s new emphasis on supporting online communities is two-pronged: one, it is an affirmation of the central role technology and the Internet are playing and will continue to play in mobilizing social change and connection; two, it has unprecedented potential for exponentially increasing organizations’ reaches and changing the way social impact groups can engage with and understand their end users.