ONLINE COMMUNITY: Key points from NYU research on Facebook groups

Quietly, Facebook groups have undermined the pillars of what made a local newspaper work.

Small ads? Why pay £7 for 20 words in the back of an inkie when you can whack it up onto Facebook Marketplace and sell it within an hour?

Same for local news, sport clubs and society news. Why wait until Friday when you can keep track of the game in real time and debate it as you’re doing it?

Of course, none of this is new but it took the COVID-19 pandemic to really bring it home to some people.

New York University with Facebook have produced ‘The Power of Virtual Communities’ based on interviews and research into Facebook groups in 15 countries. It’s authors in the introduction were sure they made clear they retained editorial control despite the document being part Facebook-funded.

The research is not so strong on numbers and repeats YouGov/Facebook research from late last year over overall numbers. There are 1.8 billion Facebook group users, it says.

But there are a few gems. Online groups have become in the UK the most important commuinities to members with 38.9 per cent preferring them to offline groups (35.2 per cent). A mix of the two accounted for 25.8 per cent.

However, the research is particularly strong at the opinions and views on why and how groups work and how long lasting they could be.

What Facebook groups show

People find a strong sense of community in Facebook groups despite them not being physical. But they very often lead to meet-ups that bridge the on and offline divide.

New leaders have emerged through groups. They are often marginalised and not represented through traditional offline structures. They do it through love rather than as a career decision.

Facebooks show what academics described as ‘networked individualism.’ Individuals join groups rather than kinship groups or families.

Often the admins of Facebook groups are accidental leaders.

What drives Facebook group’s success

A strong admin of the group that allows differences of opinion and acts with ethics makes groups work.

They can form and take-off at speed.

In COVID-19 times, Facebook groups show people coming together over a shared wish to support each other.

What can be Facebook group’s failures

Interestingly, the research also called into question everything about groups. They are not perfect in every way.

Because of the speed of their formulation, longevity is still up for question. Some critics question the value of online connections against offline face-to-face relationships.

Those are perfectly valid criticisms.

For me, what they are are ways that people are consuming the internet in 2021 and the way they connect. May they be in ten years time? I honestly don’t know. But what I am confident of is this. The lessons learned in connecting with Facebook groups will be useful as the web develops.

Facebook groups have evolved as more private spaces as users have grown tired of public social media and the noise and lack of privacy that this brings.

Online communities like Facebook groups are places communicators need to know about and invest time in.

Picture credit: Documerica / Flickr

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