The importance of considering the Facebook user in community building (platform, UX)

  • Large and active communities exist on Facebook
  • Their community members and even admins are not necessarily there by active choice
  • Facebook has a massive existing user base and makes it easy to start a community
  • Even if it is not the ideal platform, it is often the easiest one to start
  • Once started, momentum is built, and it becomes difficult to change, even if desired by admins or community members
  • Members of these communities may be using a poor platform that does not encourage in-depth, high quality discussion and interaction
  • This does not mean they are not interested in or capable of participating in better ways, they may simply be limited by the platform or other extrinsic challenges
  • These people are also often comfortable with the Facebook Groups platform and find it easy to use
  • Alternative and potentially better (in many ways) tools like Discourse may be better, but are nonetheless unfamiliar and present a barrier to participation
  • These are potentially great contributors to other communities who in essence may be “trapped” in Facebook through familiarity, platform lock-in, etc.
  • Thus, as community builders, we should do everything possible to make it easy for them to migrate to better platforms and tools, with privacy, data ownership, etc.
  • This hopefully also includes openness toward and development effort on features, UI, and UX that caters more toward the Facebook-familiar audience from influential platforms like Discourse

This is a draft of a more complete write-up on all the points above, but I found it more clear to just list it out. I may or may not return to this below, but the core points are above.

Lately as I have been diving more into both the technical and social aspects of community building, I have repeatedly run up against a frustrating road block. Facebook is a massive platform and it provides some basic tools to develop community outside of one’s personal sphere (Groups, primarily, though Events as well). I would argue that these tools are not “best in class” by any means, and even if they were, there are significant complicating factors in a decision to accept Facebook’s various privacy, security, and other implications in considering where to foster and grow one’s community.

Most of my work in community building is with small businesses, startup software developers, ,etc. In that context data and platform ownership have significant potential value, not to mention access to source code, or at least a strong and open API that allows for interoperability, e.g. directly connecting an issue tracking system to the community discussion platform. Facebook fails in all these areas as well, and even with decent 3rd party tools like Integromat, there are significant compromises to workflow that result.

The thing about Facebook, though, is that due to its sheer reach, your potential community members are likely to have a Facebook account already. And more problematically, communities are likely to develop on Facebook for any given product, interest area, etc. because Facebook makes it easy to do so. Communities develop and users join due to low friction, even if they don’t love the platform, its policies, or the functionality of the Groups or Events systems themselves. Even with its limitations and frustrations, Facebook’s groups system is fairly intuitive and easy to use, especially for basic members who simply post and interact with the posts of others.

One of the platforms I use extensively right now is Discourse, and their mission is stated as follows:

Discourse is a from-scratch reboot, an attempt to reimagine what a modern Internet discussion forum should be today, in a world of ubiquitous smartphones, tablets, Facebook, and Twitter.

and in the words of Jeff Atwood, co-founder of Discourse, when he announced the project on his blog:

The goal of the company we formed, Civilized Discourse Construction Kit, Inc. , is exactly that – to raise the standard of civilized discourse on the Internet through seeding it with better discussion software:

They understandably position themselves as an alternative to Facebook, but taking into account its existence in some way (I mean it’s explicitly mentioned in their mission statement). I’m not entirely sure how they’re considering Facebook, but from topics in the Discourse Meta forums (where the Discourse platform itself is discussed), the attitude from the Discourse team (less so other Discourse admins and users) seems to often be “If you want a Facebook-like experience, use Facebook” and/or “We don’t see enough value in catering to Facebook group users for migration”.

In other words it seems as though Discourse is oppositional to Facebook in some sense; they are hesitant to consider Facebook features or UX, and at times almost scornful of any desire to cater to the existing users of Facebook communities. Which to some degree is fair given they have a company to run and need to make money, etc. It’s true that a lot of Facebook groups simply would never be paying customers. But the recent popularity and burgeoning success of paid community platforms like Circle and their greater similarity to Facebook in certain key UI and UX choices, suggests that the simple “Facebook is free, these people won’t pay” calculus may not be quite right. Facebook represents a class of users that are not exclusive to that platform but legitimately value some things about it, and these things are worth considering.

The vast majority of people who participate in or even start Facebook communities are not there by some explicit choice or preference for it as a platform. And they are not there because they aren’t smart enough for a forum. They use Facebook groups because it’s easy, it exists within a system they already use, and it has momentum and user numbers. They may or may not notice its shortcomings in features, functionality, or UX, but they stay with it because that’s where their community is, that’s where the founders of those communities chose to start.

We can’t undo those choices by well-intentioned community founders and administrators on Facebook. And many may even prefer being on Facebook for one reason or another. But increasingly we see a desire to move away from the dominance and various moral, social, or psychological concerns its platform and methods raise. This may be a consideration for the admins of a given community, but even if not, it is certainly one for some of its members, and this creates a tension and a threat to the community’s cohesion and long-term sustainability. Nobody wants to see people leave their community for any reason other than being a bad participant.

So the admins of these communities have to consider these problems whether they like it or not, whether they themselves are happy with Facebook as a platform or not. And this because an even bigger issue for those who are running communities on Facebook that are connected to a business, like ClickUp or Amazing Marvin. These companies no doubt want ownership of their platforms and data, and a greater ability to interact with the discussions occurring there. But it is difficult to move. Few alternative community platforms provide anything more than Facebook login integration to ease the transition.

It’s also worth mentioning that Jeff’s statement above, in particular, suggests a certain level of responsibility to set aside the pure profit motive in the interest of that original goal: “raise the standard of civilized discourse on the Internet”. Surely this is not something only deserved by those willing to pay, and to be fair Discourse does provide free and discounted hosting for various specifically identified groups, e.g. open source projects, educational, and non-profit orgs. But many, many Facebook groups and other niche communities simply don’t fall under those rules.

I’m not pretending the solution is simple, Discourse hosting takes resources and resources cost money. But I do think that spending some more energy on understanding and addressing the needs of communities not already using a forum would be beneficial to that core goal. It’s not fair to assume that a community based on a non-forum platform is using it because they somehow disagree with how forums work, there are many other important factors to consider, and it’s likely that a forum model would work well for many of these communities if some of those other factors (e.g. ease of use) were addressed.

I should also acknowledge taht Discourse is not entirely standing still on these issues. Over time they have worked to simplify and streamline their UI and UX and that work is ongoing and will probably never stop. But still it is often largely incremental (arguably it should be), and perhaps more to the point, the starting place for everyone with Discourse is essentially the same. It is, from my perspective, still a fairly angular, somewhat busy, and “techie-looking” UI, even with alternative themes (I’ve written on the limitations of available themes over on Meta). One person even quoted a user’s Discourse experience as “It looks just like an Excel spreadsheet” (granted this was a few years ago and there have been some design updates since, but still). I hope we - and the Discourse team in particular - can continue to do better and better to make tools for “civilized discourse” more broadly available and accessible to all.