Illustration by Bruno Moraes (Licensed)
I often find more value in a community of strangers than I do in one of friends. After a decade or so of collecting friends and followers across social sites, thoughtful and important information can be lost in the noise of trending topics and the internet equivalent of television static, content presented by algorithms manipulating our feeds, displayed between Live videos and vacation Instagrams.
The noise can become tiring, prompting a desire to seek out spaces where voices, insights, and interests have value, and where others, both friends and strangers, can come together to share them.
Facebook groups are something of a respite from the loud and often overwhelming deluge of information we get on Facebook and other social platforms. Each day when I login to the social network, I check my groups.
There are two groups I visit daily, along with a handful I check periodically or when I get a notification. Sometimes I lurk and sometimes I post. But inevitably I find my groups more entertaining and interesting than my news feed.
For journalist Taylor Lorenz, creator of the happiness and wellness group Hapwell, Facebook groups are a place for her to connect with people who share the same interests. Groups have usurped Twitter as the online platform she visits to chat, share links, and make friends.
Facebook groups are something of a respite from the loud and often overwhelming deluge of information we get on Facebook and other social platforms.
"As Facebook's news feed has become crowded by publisher links, viral clips, and an endless stream of miserable Facebook Live videos, Facebook groups have become the only way that I can reliably reach my friends," Lorenz said in an email. "It's sort of a way to manually target your audience instead of relying on Facebook's flawed algorithm. I'm in one group with friends, Secret Article Club, where we just share news stories all day. We know that if all of us posted these stories to the main feed, they'd get lost, but this way we can all actually share and chat about that day's events collectively."
Forming semi-private communities around ideas and interests online has existed since humans connected to the internet. Bulletin board systems were the precursors to social networking platforms we use today; not to mention Yahoo Groups, still used by millions, with everything from passive-aggressive advice to offers of free home decor.
But as Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter blossomed, we naturally began to open up our social networks to, well, everyone. Our personal identities were tied to our posts, photos, and information in a much more intimate way. No longer were we just an email or a screen name; we were people whose offline and online communities coalesced into internet spaces.
We added friends from high school and college, parents' friends, long-lost cousins, random people we met at a bar that one time and naively thought we'd be friends with again. Through these expanding "friendships," social networks became saturated with different beliefs, ideas, and content. Now, years later, the relationships we have with people we are friends with online may not represent any qualities of a real friendship, and yet they remain.
Paradoxically, expanding networks can feel increasingly disconnected from the people, information, ideas, and beliefs that make us social creatures. And that's exactly why groups, communities built around individual topics, may feel like they're seeing a resurgence. We're reconnecting with the identities that have dissolved into a feed which only displays a tiny fraction of what we share to our friends.
"If you notice Facebook is operating on the fact we’re not sharing as much as we used to, that in itself is proof people are going to groups to share what they want to share and keep private information private," Shireen Mitchell, web developer and social strategist, said in an interview. "It’s clear for people that some of the things they want to talk about are controversial. We’ve seen people lose jobs over things they posted on Facebook."
Over-sharing fatigue is real. People are reportedly sharing significantly less personal updates to news feeds on Facebook. It could be why our feeds are filled with Live video, memes, news articles, and photos while intimate details are scarce. According to a Pew Internet study, people are less likely to share information on social networks if they think their audience won't agree with them, and are more willing to discuss controversial topics in person than online.
Controversial or not, sharing things you care about with your news feed can be deflating when no one is there to engage with it. For instance, I'm an active person and love talking about running or yoga. Most of my friends don't have a similar lifestyle, so when I post an article or video about these activities, it rarely finds an audience on my news feed. But when I post in my private yoga group on Facebook, dozens of people are similarly eager to discuss the information.
When I asked fellow Hapwell members what they use groups for, the responses were similar to my own experiences: To stay connected to subcultures, to engage with local neighborhoods and communities, to find entertainment, and to share information and advice with professional peers.
Often, these groups can translate to offline interactions—some people in my yoga group have gone on retreats together, or visited one another while on vacation in different cities around the world. For Lorenz, Facebook groups became a lifeline when she moved to Baltimore; someone added her to a group of media professionals, and her social circles quickly expanded.
Controversial or not, sharing things you care about with your news feed can be deflating when no one is there to engage with it.
"I was able to make a whole new group of friends through the group," she said. "It wasn't long before I began joining tons more Facebook groups around Baltimore. I found new events to attend that were shared or hosted by the Facebook groups I participate in and have made countless IRL friendships."
Groups are helpful for interacting with folks who share similar interests and identities, but they're also imperfect for the same reason. Self-made filter bubbles can mean we're missing out on information and ideas different from our own.
"What we end up doing is what we do in our social environment," Mitchell said. "We end up hanging out with people who think like us, who see things from our perspective, come from our backgrounds and environment, and that’s what some of these groups do. They allow people to stay in that bubble of their world, whether it’s offline or online."
That isn't to say all groups are beneficial; every network has spam. Allyson Kapin, founder of Women Who Tech, says groups that don't have moderators who audit what people post often become self-promotional content dumps, losing what benefit they had in the first place.
To combat dissolution of value and entertainment, many groups implement rules, and moderators can decide what content is allowed within the group. Structural feedback isn't just reserved for professional networking—one of my favorite groups, Useless, Unsuccessful, and/or Unpopular Memes, a nonsensical group of memes with over 140,000 members, has a long and detailed rulebook.
Yes, even memes have rules within Facebook's walled garden.
Mitchell sees the formation of groups—on Facebook, in messaging apps, and social-chat hybrids like Slack—as a way of returning to the closed environments we cultivated before oversharing became a buzzword and "real names," became a controversy.
"You’ve broadened your net to see what kind of people were out there, to see who you like and didn’t like, then you handpicked from the net to say, 'Hey, come to this group so we can all have a private conversation,'" Mitchell said.
We self-select to rid ourselves of the noise that's become too loud. To find solace from exploding watermelons, vitriolic status updates, and wedding announcements from people we haven't spoken to in a decade. And to discover voices we haven't yet heard, or those that get lost among the raucous.