Over the past year, I’ve decided to join a variety of Facebook groups. In a way, it’s the return of the Facebook likes of the past. When I was a kid, I’d like some interesting or funny one-liner that was, as the kids say, “#relatable” and then I would immediately forget about it for something more important, like the number of likes my last Facebook photo received. These liked pages would show up on my feed for a few days, my friends would like these pages and then they’d be gone forever. Now, though, these Facebook pages have taken a different form: groups that have specific interests or topics in which individuals can post in and talk about related issues. This is fun, but it might not sound as great when you realize that this is just another way to silo oneself into an information system.
At first glance, Facebook groups might appear to be a good thing. It goes without saying that there are serious benefits from marginalized or niche groups coming together to talk about common interests. And as I’m sure your tour guide let you know, the University of Michigan has tons of those on campus: Whether you’re interested in political activism or squirrels, finding individuals here on campus that you share interests with provides social benefits for the person, including those aforementioned Facebook likes. These organizations can help people acclimate to campus and discuss common issues and interests. One could say Facebook groups are doing the same thing: People interested in public transit or advocacy surrounding public transit use can find many groups on Facebook, but I don’t believe these groups have the same impact as organizations on campus.
One of the largest benefits is also one of the biggest downsides to Facebook groups. Because of the huge reach of Facebook, you can get a variety of individuals to be a part of a group. This means people from all over the country and globe can join a meme page. This connectedness is wonderful, and provides a meaningful community for some, but it also has a key problem: information silos. Like Reddit, we can see how these communities draw people further into their own issues and beliefs. Reddit allows individuals to pick their communities and only see information inside them. I worry Facebook is doing the same thing. My participation in Facebook group culture, which incorporates a variety of my political beliefs as well as my passionate love of memes, has likely made it where I see fewer opinions different than my own on my feed. I consider myself someone who tries to engage in politics from all sides — I am “that guy” who will comment on a post I disagree with — and I can say that the changes and rise of Facebook group culture give none of the benefits of a student organization on campus while giving all of the features of groupthink. A Facebook group discussing public transit gives all of the benefits without, say, the arguments one might want to hear regarding American hesitancy of raising taxes and how we might have to give up or cut back on social programs that might be hurting the exact group of people we’re interested in helping.
In the meantime, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that he is doubling-down on Facebook group culture and has stated his interest in continuing and growing Facebook groups. Facebook launched its first “Communities Summit,” noting that the goal of the event is to “strengthen people’s online and offline connections.” Zuckerberg is right that group participation offline has been declining, and, for over 40 years, the social science body of literature has suggested that we are losing some of those ties that help bond us together and make us feel rooted in a community.
And there’s good reason for Zuckerberg to create this event. The divisive nature of politics right now is near an all-time high. In constructing a website that has an algorithm to determine what you see, you can imagine that it is in a company’s best interest to keep you on the website for as long as possible. Since Facebook is free, it has to sell you, the user, to advertisers. Reasonably, this can lead a company to show you things you agree with and have you avoid things you don’t. But, unfortunately, that won’t help people avoid confirming existing beliefs and won’t allow for their ideas to be challenged. An article from The Atlantic talks about how, from an evolutionary perspective, having social support far outweighs knowing the truth. Having people on board with an idea had far larger benefits in a society where social support meant life or death. Now? I’d like to imagine my Facebook likes are, perhaps, not as important as having well-founded opinions and an interest in political advocacy. But what do I know?
Information silos from Facebook are not new, but groups are a new iteration of this same problem. When Facebook announced they were going to put groups and your personal contacts as a priority on your feed instead of news articles, Facebook chose confirmation bias over a diversity of information. I hope to see a world where Facebook is a democratic platform where one can engage in substantive debate. Groups might be able to increase our Facebook likes, but they’re certainly not going to mend the divisive rhetoric in this country.
Ian Leach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.