My Facebook group isn’t private, but it isn’t easy to find either. Its title doesn’t include my name. At various points in my journalistic history, when I’ve written something that’s attracted the attention of trolls, my group has remained immune. A few times a day, I post articles as a point of discussion, and then the group, which now numbers over 42,000, discusses those articles — and the topics therein — in the comments. (In truth, it’s a page masquerading as a group — a secondary group, moderated by myself and others, includes posts from members). It sounds dorky, and it generally is.
Of course, Facebook’s mysterious and befuddling algorithm ensures that only a fraction of the members see a given post. But the comments are funny, and thought-provoking, and inquisitive. People disagree, people ask questions, people ask for elaboration — but, with rare exception, people are not nasty or dismissive or horrible to one another. In the rare occasion nastiness does arrive (once every few weeks, usually when a post has been shared “outside” of the group to another person’s feed), I unceremoniously block them.
I started the original group in 2009, and have never monetized it. I do it because I really, really like it, and the people who are part of it tell me they really, really like it too. It’s a place where I feel like I can ask questions, or for help working through an idea that’s not quite there yet. Members come from all over the world, and, according to Facebook’s analytics, 81% identify as women. Men periodically post in the comments. But they recognize, in a way I rarely see online, that their opinions are secondary.
For many of us, these groups are one of the few remaining things tethering us to a platform that’s proven itself ineffective at combating toxicity, misinformation, and abuse in nearly every way. They provide community for people from all over the world, doing a bunch of different stuff, with a bunch of different and intersecting identities.
Back in 2017, still reeling from the revelations about Facebook’s role in spreading misinformation around the presidential campaign, Facebook realized that these groups were the one truly good thing going for the platform — and announced its new mission. Before, Facebook was attempting to “make the world more open and connected.” Now, the aim was “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” There would be a new focus on increasing the number of people in “meaningful” groups, defined as “the most important part of someone’s experience on Facebook.” In 2017, 100 million people were involved in meaningful groups. In 2019, the number had risen 200 million. The goal, according to Facebook, is to reach 1 billion before 2022.
But Facebook didn’t build these groups. We built them in spite of Facebook. We built them because of what Facebook had become. Which is why so many people are furious at how difficult it’s become to transfer or find that community elsewhere online.
When I first joined Facebook in the mid-2000s — before the News Feed, before the like button — there were no groups, just “interests.” The one I remember most vividly had to do with loving the sound of the first leaf you hear crunch under your foot in fall. You didn’t do anything in, or with, the group — it was more like an interest collective. As Facebook evolved and expanded, so too did the types of collectives: First, there were pages; then came joinable groups. Today, groups can be public (anyone can join at any time); private (you can request to join, but must be admitted by a moderator); and “secret” — the type you can only find if someone in the group invites you.
The most basic type of group is location-focused. One of my favorites, “Uniquely Anaconda” (~9,500 members), is for “people who grew up in Anaconda, Montana (or wish they had) to share memories, photos, stories, and hopefully reconnect with friends and family.” In practice, this means a lot of people posting photos from their morning walks. Other groups, like “Dogspotting” (~1.29 million members), are global, dedicated to the “game, sport and lifestyle of spotting random dogs you encounter.” “This Cat Is C H O N K Y” is for pictures of, uh, chonky cats, but also, as one member put it, a place where “no one shames anyone and if you’re having a bad day you can request pics of the thing about pets that makes you happiest.” (If the cats on the page aren’t chonky enough, there’s also “This Cat Is Actually C H O N K Y.”)
There are seemingly endless groups dedicated to local yard sales, “Buy Nothing” swaps, personal MLMs, high school graduation classes, fandoms, cooking, genealogy, and more. There’s a group for seltzer aficionados, and “Brutalist Concreteposters” and Rancho Gordo Beans, and lingerie addicts and pretty much any other thing you can love and want to talk to other people about. Like so much else on the internet, they are affinity groups — either geographically or culturally — and when a group gets too big, or too broad, it’ll divide itself into something that feels more intimate. Take podcast groups: They’ll form around a particular show (Who? Weekly, My Favorite Murder, Forever35, Binge Mode), then divide further around identity and affinity (“Forever35 Travel,” “Forever35 Sober,” “Forever35 Work From Home”).
For many of the dozens of people who told me about their favorite groups, the best ones — the ones that keeps you tethered to a social media platform you otherwise loathe — are hyperspecific: There’s a “radically inclusive sewing group,” which one member describes as “helping folks who sew learn about their biases and get kinder and smarter about how they relate to each other.” One woman told me about a group rooted in posting anti-gentrification memes, where conversations focus on systemic injustice in city planning. Another described a secret group of people who live in deep “red” areas of the country and struggled with their communities and families after the 2016 election. “It’s been the only thing keeping me sane,” the member told me, “and definitely one of the main reasons I haven’t left FB.”
There’s a group for single parents in academia, and freelance women in the film industry, and ex-evangelicals, and fashion historians, and adoptive mothers, and trans and nonbinary comedians, and women who’ve appeared on Jeopardy, who offer advice on how other women can protect themselves from the attention and abuse that can come following their appearance on the show.
For people (or parents of children) with specific diseases or disabilities, there’s almost certainly a group for that. “I’m in a chronic disease group,” one woman told me, “and the mods are pretty serious and we’re all working on our ableist language, so there are gentle call outs and lots of content warnings. I’m in medicine, so it is a precious space for me to be a ‘sick’ person and have that be a part of my identity. I don’t post often about my own shit, but I treasure having a space where I can and I sometimes feel my medical knowledge can be helpful there in a way I don’t always experience in my actual job.”
Part of the pleasure of participating in a group — as opposed to simply lurking — is the invitation to offer advice. In her piece on watching new baby photos pop up in her regular feed, Meaghan O’Connell wrote, “I feel full of affection and compassion and nostalgia, followed quickly by a vexing, almost irrepressible desire to be consulted.” She connects the feeling to Paul Ford’s overarching theory of online behavior: “Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.”
Which helps explain endless answers on Quora threads, 1000-word TripAdvisor reviews, and what O’Connell finds herself both craving and dreading: the conversation that somehow devolves under an innocuous post about a baby not sleeping, which ends with dozens of women arguing with one another about sleep training. Because the truth is that as much as you love your friends, or your extended family, or your former high school teacher, you often don’t actually want their advice. It’s too tinted with emotional connection and prejudice, on both ends.
“I’m in a super-secret FB group for parents and caregivers who aren’t assholes,” one woman told me. “You have to be invited by somebody in the group and everyone is really REALLY selective in who’s invited. The very clearly stated ethos is that there’s no judgment. If you read something and feel judge-y...do not comment. Just leave it. And people really do. The result is a group where people can talk openly and honestly about their parenting issues — struggles and joys.”
Often, what you actually want is an authoritative stranger, responding to your specific query, speaking from their experience, but with no strings attached, no connections, no fear of seeing them in the grocery store and them asking if you took their advice. The opposite, in other words, of the rest of the Facebook feed.
It’s unclear how teens — and the now-twentysomething young millennials — perceived Facebook’s toxicity before the rest of us. Maybe they just saw that the service they joined as middle schoolers facilitated a middle school–level of discourse. Maybe they understood, in that uniquely teen way, that any place adults were was one where you’d never actually be free — especially from the surveilling eyes of future colleges and employers. The risks of posting about themselves were made vivid in way that the rest of us, who only risked inadvertently giving over all of our personal information, felt free to ignore.
Many of the younger generation might still have Facebook accounts, but usage has dropped off a cliff. Many have found digital community elsewhere: For one microgeneration, it’s on Snap, for another, it’s on Instagram, both of which make it easy to create subgroups and chats. There was Vine; now there’s TikTok. For the approximate Facebook Group experience, there’s Reddit — a site until recently so old-school that even those of us who came up with the old-school internet didn’t really understand how to use it.
For many older millennials, Gen X’ers, and boomers, there’s a massive barrier to entry into these communities. For most, even Twitter is a bridge too far, and the vast majority of our beloved blogs are now dead. But Facebook — that’s easy. Our kids might not be on there, but, for better or worse, our peers still are. It may have taken a decade for nearly everyone in our age group to join, but now, they’re embedded. Nonprofit employees told me it’s the only way they reach their clients. Some school groups use it exclusively to communicate with parents. For many organizations and activists, it’s the only reliable way to announce and invite people to an event. It’s an address book, a photo archive, a memory box — not to mention one’s primary news source, and the portal to the rest of the internet.
But it’s also a cesspool. To avoid it, you learn how to strategically block and hide people, how to stymie the stupefying, ever-changing algorithm by marking certain pages “See First,” how to erase your entire profile and navigate directly to your groups. I’ve heard these tactics referred to as “Facebook hacks,” but they’re really way to counter the worst, and strongest, inclinations of the platform — a means to see what you actually want to see, not what Facebook has decided you want to see; how to actually “connect,” instead of Facebook attempting to connect you, again and again, with the conversations generating the most “conversation,” which is often the most toxicity.
When Facebook announced its switch in mission at the “Communities Summit” in June 2017, it flew in dozens of group moderators from across the world, each with a story of how their group had changed them and the world. But like so much else to do with Facebook, Zuckerberg’s announcement — or at least the announced means of achieving the goal — fundamentally misunderstood what people actually wanted from Facebook. The plan is to use the algorithm to increase group suggestions for users — which might work if you only like, say, dog groups, but won’t work if you are a human being with interests that defy machine learning.
What would actually make groups more alluring — and more valuable to users — would be to increase their usability, and their application to other parts of users’ lives. Some functions, like the ability to search previous posts, have admittedly improved. But larger improvements would include functions like making it easy to contact members off of Facebook — say, through email — which remain anathema to Facebook’s business model. Facebook wanted increased connection, but exclusively through Facebook, and exclusively on Facebook’s terms.
Another improvement that would make people engage in groups more? Actually surfacing that group’s content in your feed — regardless of whether or not you’ve engaged. It’s an idea that’s deeply antithetical to Facebook, and yet precisely what many users want. Sometimes a post in my group will reach 100,000-plus people through shares and “impressions.” Other posts, for no reason I can discern, other than not as many people clicking on it within 10 minutes of posting, will reach only 200 people — in a group, again, of at least 42,000. It’s the age-old problem of the algorithm: It gives us so little credit about what we actually want to see and read. It indulges our worst internet selves instead of respecting our best internet intentions.
Part of what people like about groups is just…reading them. You could call this lurking, or you could call this learning from others. I have friends who spend their lunch hours or breastfeeding time navigating directly to a page and reading it in a big gulp, the way we used to read blogs, or Google Reader. (But again: They have to strong-arm Facebook into letting them use the platform the way they want to use it.)
For others, what they really like about their groups, what really seems to feel helpful and generous and supportive, is when members are given the opportunity to be authorities on our own lives and experiences — something that may be absent from one’s offline life. “I’m part of two secret groups,” one woman told me, “one for moms and one for ministers. They’ve become an important community for me and a safe/non-judgemental space to tell the truth about how hard both those jobs are.”
But as this same woman points out, “most mom groups (and many professional groups!) are toxic garbage, so the fact that these AREN’T like that is precisely what makes them special.” Keeping a group secret is the most efficient way to keep a group “in line,” whatever that might mean for a particular set of people. In larger, more public groups, civility and supportiveness are maintained by set rules and attentive moderators, or “mods.”
“Every time I join a FB group, I’m struck by the rules, which are almost always VERY progressive,” one avid FB group member, who also belongs to my own FB group, said. “Mods do NOT put up with any transphobia. I would expect that in something like this group maybe, but it’s less expected in This Cat is C H O N K Y and other similar silly, nonpolitical groups. It really sets groups apart from the rest of FB, which is of course a toilet.”
Of course, there are hundreds of thousands of Facebook groups out there that don’t work this way. Places where freedom to speak one’s truth solidifies anti-vax and anti-science stances. Conspiracy groups. Flat Earth groups. Groups for fans of Alex Jones. Groups for Gay Anti-SJW Free Speechers. Most people with a positive group experience have observed other ones that turned bad — comment threads that went far off the rails, schisms that broke the group into pieces, mods who burned out. Trolls invade, or the group loses the intimacy that made it meaningful in the first place.
None of those phenomena are unique to Facebook. After all, the things people love about these groups are the same things that drew early internet users to bulletin boards, chat rooms, fan pages, and list serves: connection around ideas and identities that are often difficult to find, or at least difficult to find en masse, in your offline life. Before the internet, people worked harder to find affinity groups, but they still found them — even if it meant placing ads in esoteric trade magazines and becoming pen pals, or showing up for Toastmasters, or quilting club, or genealogy class all by yourself.
Moving those spaces from the analog to the digital realm has made them less risky and more accessible, decreasing the friction of “joining” but also the necessary investment. Sure, Facebook requires use of a “real” name. But the freedoms that accompany interaction with strangers are the same ones that facilitate abuse. Part of the reason women who’ve been on Jeopardy need a Facebook support group, after all, is because Facebook itself made it so easy for abusers to find them.
The “best” groups are the smallest and most secret because they’re cloaked from both the online and offline world — places where both myself and so many of the women I spoke to for this article feel invisible, unvalued, or objectified. The right group can provide the opposite of all that: a place where your voice feels visible, your opinion is valued, and your body is secondary — or discussed on your own terms.
The first time someone posted a picture of themselves in one of my groups, asking for specific makeup advice, I cringed: This woman has no idea what she’s getting into. To post a picture of oneself on the internet — especially in the hyperpublic realm of the internet I usually frequent — is to invite abuse for the rest of your online life. But I was the one who didn’t realize what I was getting into: namely, a very lovely thread offering advice on blush color.
It feels revelatory, like daring to read a comments section and finding a thoughtful exchange, or daring to open your Instagram “Other” message folder and not finding a single guy calling you a cuntbag. When people talk about the joys of groups, they’re talking about the pleasures of animal photos and wry commentary and advice, but they’re also talking about the ability to access those things without wading through cesspools of misleading advertising, scams, and assholes.
But nontoxic spaces on the internet shouldn’t be so rare and precious that we maintain accounts with companies that exploit our trust and personal information in the name of unfettered growth. Facebook created the model of social networking that now serves as the framework for the internet at large — a model that has facilitated, centralized, and amplified abuse. What’s fucked up, and yet so deeply Facebook, is that it simultaneously monopolized the main means of taking shelter from it. ●