Author: Helen Cammack

Founder of interests.me

Is Facebook defining your local community?

Maybe you’ve noticed, as I have, that Facebook is fast becoming the digital ‘placemaker’, potentially reaching a huge local audience, and increasingly defining an area online.

Successful local Facebook Groups have thousands of active members. Sometimes it can seem as though the membership is 25-50% of the number of residents of an area. (But this may be misleading, as I explain below).

As an admin of a local Facebook Group myself, I notice that quite a few people are asking to join when they are considering moving to an area. Their decision about whether to move to a community is influenced by the activity level and type of comments and posts they see in the Facebook Group. House prices and rental prices are likely to be driven to some extent by the attractiveness and interest of your local Facebook Group.

Of course, there are lots of positives about local Facebook Groups. I’ve met new people through these Groups, and got to know people better whom I may have otherwise only nodded to at the school gate. It’s a good bellweather of local opinion about the important and the mundane. Whilst there has been interesting discussion on planned new housing developments, I’ve found out A LOT (more than I probably wanted) about what people think of the parking, and what dog-owners think of the local woodland’s new signs. We also get our fair share of local businesses posting pictures of the latest kitchen they fitted, or even their price list, much of which has my finger hovering over the ‘delete’ button as an admin, and wondering what crosses the line as not interesting enough.

However, do we want Facebook to be where our community represents itself online?

Here are some reasons why we probably don’t.

1. Facebook may seem inclusive, but it does exclude people

There are still lots of people who don’t use Facebook. Relying on it as the only place where your community represents itself online can be excluding a lot of people from seeing important information.

2. The size of Facebook Groups can be deceptive

Local Facebook Groups can seem enormous. In my village there are 9,000 residents (including children) and getting on for 2,500 members of the village Facebook Group. However, I know for certain that a large number of these members do not live in the village. Some might be curious, or considering a move. Many see the ‘large’ audience and want access to the Group in order to promote something – either their own business or something else – but may not be local.

However, seeing these large numbers only attracts even more (often non-local) people to ask to join the Group, as they see the opportunity to promote to this large audience as even more compelling.

3. Ethics and Privacy

Yes, Facebook really pushes the boundaries when it comes to user privacy and respect for users. I hardly need to go into this, as this has been so well documented in the press. That’s one of the reasons some people choose not to be on Facebook.

4. The “Noise”

“Noise” (by which I mean all the comments, and many of the more trivial posts too) is unavoidable on Facebook. Interested in seeing the important stuff? You can’t do it without getting sucked into a vortex of trivia, rants and distractions. Yet another reason why many don’t use Facebook.

5. The Hard Work in Moderating

For those interested in creating a community presence online, all the “noise” means that being a Facebook Group admin is not a job to be taken lightly. Curating and moderating a Facebook Group can be time-consuming, and actually quite stressful too.

6. Facebook Decides What Gets Seen

Even though I’m an admin for a successful local Facebook Group, I don’t get to decide what members of that Group see on Facebook. Facebook decides, via its algorithm. Even if I “pin” an important post to the top of the Group, Facebook decides what gets shown in the newsfeed of individual users, and information which I may consider important for the community may not be seen at all.

Important posts can get easily “lost” in the newsfeed by being pushed down by other information.

7. Relying on Facebook is Dangerous

Facebook is currently promoting Groups heavily at the moment, but Facebook has a history of promoting the use of a certain feature of its platform (eg Pages), then introducing changes (such as a new algorith) which take away the free audience and make those benefiting from the feature pay in order to continue having access to the audience they once got for free.

Facebook owns the access to the data of all its users, and those who work hard to build a Facebook Group are ultimately benefiting Facebook just as much as (if not more than) themselves, and Facebook can remove those benefits instantly.

So do we want Facebook to be where our community represents itself online? No, I don’t think so.

Our approach to online ‘placemaking’ is to help communities to build an online presence which is independent of Facebook. Our community websites are completely independent, privacy friendly (not requiring users to have an account in order to see community information), and free of “noise” (since only organisations can post information, and there are no comments). They allow information to be organised, for instance in community events calendars.

However, it’s important not to ignore the large audiences on Facebook. All the content produced on our community platform can be shared easily in local Facebook Groups (preferably working with the admins of the local Facebook Groups).

This way, a community can use Facebook, but be independent of it, and not rely upon it or become its slave.

Solving the community information problem – Part 2

Following on from my last post about the community information problem, I’m going to pose the thorny question of who should manage or curate community information.

This post was sparked by a discussion I led at Smart London Camp 2018 – an event run at City Hall in London by the Mayor of London’s Chief Digital Officer Theo Blackwell.

It was a great event and there were some excellent “pitches” for discussions.

So I added my own pitch into the mix. I pitched a discussion about “solving the community information problem”, which ended up being astoundingly well-attended by around 25-30 Camp attendees. I outlined the problem as I saw it using 4 tweets:

The participants in the discussion were a passionate, knowledgeable bunch. Some came from the world of local government, some were “open data” geeks and programmers, and others were from the voluntary sector. All had given up their Saturday to sit inside talking to (mostly) strangers about subjects that interested them.

There was huge agreement that this was a problem.

However, when it came to solutions, we found one big area of disagreement. Who should curate the community information?

Should it be Facebook or Google?

Overwhelmingly there were concerns about these enormous, US-based, commercial giants owning this space, although most agreed that they were valuable distribution channels for community information.

Privacy concerns were front and centre, of course.

It was also felt that the voluntary sector – particularly small community groups – had a rough deal competing for audiences on Facebook and Google with businesses prepared to pay for advertising and favourable placement.

Should it be Local Government?

Local government clearly has the interests of a local area at its heart, however it may have a problem being trusted by the public as an unbiased source of information, and being trusted by the local voluntary sector to represent them fairly.

Should it be Councils for Voluntary Service?

These organisations act as umbrella associations for local voluntary groups. However, they are not independent of local government and most funding tends to come from local government sources. Probably more importantly, they are not used to playing this role of curating community information, and they may not be able to commit the time to it, or may lack the technical skills to do this well.

Should it be the NHS?

The NHS came up as a potential curator of community information, since there are incentives for the NHS to encourage citizens to be more active and social – reducing social isolation and depression, and increasing physical activity and health. However, the NHS’s view (or agenda) on what constitutes community information is likely to be different to citizens’ views, and it would undoubtedly have a health-related slant if run by the NHS. It’s also likely that the NHS would be ultra-conservative in what is approved, and would not take risks with new, unknown, groups which had not been checked out. Would bureaucracy get in the way of dynamism and usefulness?

Should it be Housing Associations?

Where Housing Associations exist, there may be a clear motivation to improve the area and create a central view of community information. However, these are not universal and there may be ‘boundary issues’ which get in the way of how locals perceive where they live to be.

Should it be local volunteers?

Just like local Facebook Groups, perhaps we should look to local volunteers (who put their hands up to volunteer their time and have a self-declared passion for their local area) to curate community information. But who vets the local volunteers, and what’s to stop a volunteer coming forward with a distinct political agenda, who skews the curation of their community information in a certain direction?

There’s probably a need for a code of conduct which local volunteers sign up to, if local volunteers are relied upon, and a complaints procedure so that they can be held to account for their decisions – unlike Facebook where nearly “anything goes” in terms of administering local Facebook Groups.

There seems no easy answer to this question. What’s your view?

Solving the community information problem – Part 1

This is Part 1 of a 3-part series of blogs on the “community information problem”.

I often speak about the “community information problem”. But it’s not something that I hear many people talking about!

It’s a hidden problem. Everyone assumes that there isn’t a problem. After all, the internet should make it easy to find community information. By this, I mean information about events, activities and happenings round the corner from you. When the community choir meets and how to join it, when the School Summer Fair is happening, and how you can meet up with local people if you have a free Wednesday night.

But in practice, this information is hard to find. Really hard to find.

Where do you start?

Google perhaps? No. Unless you know exactly what you’re searching for, you won’t find it suggested to you by Google search.

Facebook, then? Not really. You can search for events in Facebook but what comes up is usually quite a random selection, and excludes what’s going on in those community groups which don’t post their events there. You could join your local Facebook Group for your area, and wait to see what community information is presented to you, but you’ll have to tolerate a lot of “noise” first – complaints about parking, rants about dog-owners, and local businesses promoting new kitchens and home-made crafts.

The local press? As well as local newspapers, there may be free local magazines delivered through your door, or you may be lucky enough to have a local neighbourhood magazine or newsletter produced by your parish council or residents’ association. The problem with these publications is that they can’t possibly include everything going on, and by the time you read them, the information may well be out of date. They aren’t suitable for dynamically changing information, and you’re only likely to find out about the “big stuff”.

So the “community information problem” is that information about what’s going on locally is:

  • incomplete
  • not in one place
  • not up to date & not dynamic
  • not sent to you
  • not available to all

How, then, might this problem be solved?

Completeness

One of the most important parts of the solution is capturing ALL the information (or as much of it as possible). This can be done in a couple of ways:

  • Aggregation of information which already exists online. We do this at interests.me by allowing community administrators to capture events posted for their local area from Eventbrite, Facebook and Meetup, through APIs (application programming interfaces) provided by those companies.
  • Our web tool encourages community groups to add their own information – especially those that are not already online. Persuading groups to share their information regularly is easier said than done. Just providing groups with a directory-style website where they can post their information does not guarantee that they will do it (as many council-led directory attempts have shown). At interests.me we offer a useful web tool (for free) to community groups who are not online, which helps them with their email communication (and their GDPR compliance). If they use the tool for emailing their own members, they are likely to do this whenever they have a meeting or event to promote, and they can share this information with one extra click to the community information platform. Hence we get information that would not otherwise be shared online, and it’s regularly updated.

In One Place

It’s important that the information can easily be found. Our solution to this is:

  • Our community websites. These bring together all the community information from local groups in one place (on either a noticeboard or a calendar page, or both), which means members of the public need to remember only one domain name (theircommunity.interests.me) in order to see the latest community information.

Up To Date & Dynamic

It’s important that information is up to date and old information doesn’t linger about. Our solution to this is:

  • Our system automatically hides all events which have passed their date (unlike Facebook).
  • Our web tool makes sure that groups use it regularly (for emailing) and therefore keep their updates regular.
  • We send reminder emails about our weekly community email, every week, to community groups who participate, to make sure they are reminded to add an event or announcement.

Sent To You

So that residents are updated regularly about events and activities in their community, it’s important that information is sent to them, rather than waiting for them to search for it:

  • Our community weekly emails generate about 60-80% of traffic to our community websites.

Available To All

It’s important that community information is available to all, not just those on Facebook or those who know how to search for it. It’s also important that they should not be forced to sign up for something new – eg a particular app – which many people are put off by. That’s why we aim to distribute our community information across multiple channels, both online and off-line.

  • Email has a wider reach than Facebook, and the vast majority of online users already use email regularly. There is no new app to sign up to, in order to subscribe by email. Our weekly community emails ensure that our information can reach most online users.
  • For those who spend time on social media, interests.me makes all our community information social media friendly, and shareable, and builds partnerships with local Facebook Group admins to make sure the information is shared on Facebook. However at interests.me we don’t rely on social media and we are not its slave.
  • We partner with local press wherever possible (including local government publications), to get our community information into printed publications, making the lives of editors easier (as they don’t need to go and find this information), and spreading the reach of our community information to those not online.

There are 2 other aspects to the “community information problem”, which I haven’t touched upon yet.

  1. Who manages the community information? Who decides what information belongs (and doesn’t belong) in a community? This needs to be done in a neutral, inclusive, relevant and appropriate way.
  2. How can community information be financially sustainable? It’s all very well to describe what needs to exist, but if it’s impossible to generate money from doing it, it won’t work.

I’ll cover these other aspects of the problem in future blog posts.