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.