MENLO PARK, Calif. — For the first time in its history, Facebook is changing its mission — and it’s all about bringing our smartphone-tethered lives closer together.
Changing the mission is a “pretty big deal” that represents a significant shift for the company, Facebook CEO Zuckerberg told USA TODAY in an interview earlier this month at his company’s Silicon Valley headquarters. “We’re a pretty mission-driven company.”
After a decade of promoting Facebook as a service that connects small groups of friends and family, Facebook is broadening its focus for the next decade to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
The new mandate stems from Zuckerberg’s soul searching on how Facebook should evolve to help people pull together in divisive times. Critics say Facebook itself weakened the social fabric with the spread of fake news and reinforcement of filter bubbles during contentious elections in the U.S. and overseas.
“Mark Zuckerberg has come to a sort of realization that he’s spent much of his adult life building something that has significant potential to be used for ill, including influencing elections in unexpected ways, and he wants to make sure it’s actually a force for good in the world,” said Jan Dawson, chief analyst with Jackdaw Research. “He seems to have zeroed in on community as his big focus for Facebook’s role as a positive influence. It feels like something that’s personally important to Zuckerberg and that he’s starting to swing Facebook’s resources behind.”
For Zuckerberg, the building blocks for community are Facebook groups, the private or public communal areas where people gather over common interests or challenges. At the Facebook Communities Summit in Chicago on Thursday, Zuckerberg announced updates designed to make it easier for administrators to form and manage groups. He says Facebook is helping people find groups that speak to them by getting better at suggesting groups with artificial intelligence.
“What we have come to realize is that giving people a voice is good and it helps get more opinions out there,” Zuckerberg told USA TODAY. “On top of that, we also need to help people build community and get exposed to new people and new perspectives.”
Most groups on Facebook are casual (for example, Zuckerberg says he belongs to dozens, including one for pulis like his dog Beast). The goal: to get 1 billion people to take part in “meaningful” groups that become a vital part of their daily lives and support systems, the way that real-world communal activities once did, such as church groups, fraternal orders, labor unions and sports teams, according to Zuckerberg.
The average person on Facebook belongs to 30 groups but only a couple that are “the most important part of their social network experience” and lives offline, he says. Facebook has grown membership in “meaningful” groups by more than 50% over the last six to eight months. That could significantly boost engagement on Facebook which has ambitions to become the daily hub for all of people’s online activities.
Already some 100 million Facebook users belong to these groups that offer them encouragement and support. Among the 300 group administrators tapped to attend this week’s conference: Matthew Mendoza, who started a group for people who are experiencing or recovering from drug and alcohol addiction; Chris Fowler, a fisherman for Austin, Tex., who found a “fishing family” on Facebook; Lola Omolola, who started a secret support group for women in 2015 that now has 1 million members around the world; Matt Prestbury, a preschool teacher who runs a closed support group for dads called Black Fathers; and Terri Hendricks, connected with other women who ride motorcycles through Lady Bikers of California.
Speaking at the Cannes Lions conference this week, Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said she felt supported by a Facebook group with 350,000 members that was inspired by her book Option B on coping with her husband’s death.
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Zuckerberg believes that building strong online communities will strengthen the social fabric. By getting people to coalesce this way around a common challenge or interest, he says they will find other common ground.
“The decline in community is a really big deal because people are not getting the support they need. So we are putting in place this plan basically to try to reverse that,” he told USA TODAY. “There aren’t that many institutions in the world that can play a role in helping reverse that whole trend by empowering millions of people all at once. I kind of feel like, if we are in a unique position to do that, we have a duty to do that.”
Closed groups for like-minded people can be breeding grounds for bullying, hate, racism, even terrorism. Zuckerberg says Facebook will have to crack down on “bad stuff.”
For months community has been a recurrent theme as Facebook approaches a major milestone — 2 billion people using the service at least once a month.
“What we have come to realize is that giving people a voice is good and it helps get more opinions out there,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told USA TODAY. “On top of that, we also need to help people build community and get exposed to new people and new perspectives.” (Photo: Martin E. Klimek, USA TODAY)
Each year Zuckerberg sets a new personal goal and this year he’s on a road trip to every state in the union, giving him insight into the world outside his Silicon Valley bubble, from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., attacked by a white supremacist in 2015, to a Dayton, Ohio rehabilitation center for recovering opioid addicts.
In February, he published an open letter to Facebook users entitled “Building Global Community,” pledging that Facebook would provide the “social infrastructure” to build communities that are supportive, safe, informed, civically engaged and inclusive.
During last month’s Harvard commencement address, Zuckerberg spoke of the dwindling membership in community groups that “give use that sense we are part of something bigger.”
To increase membership in groups on Facebook, Zuckerberg says he wants to remove hurdles that currently exist. New features include insights into who members are and when they are active in the group, the ability to filter member requests by such criteria as gender and location and remove blocked members and all of their posts, comments and invited friends.
“The question is how many more people are interested in doing this and would be able to if you removed some of those basic hurdles,” Zuckerberg said. “I think you would get a lot more groups, and a lot more communities that are potentially meaningful to people.”
The other key to building communities that matter to people is having engaged leaders and a compelling focus, Zuckerberg said. Most groups on Facebook are rudderless.
“From traveling around on this year of travel, I’ve just learned a lot about communities overall. And the biggest theme I have taken away from that is that all good communities have engaged leaders. That ends up being a very fundamental thing that is very different from the way our groups were structured,” Zuckerberg said. “Great communities have leaders who are looking out for people. There’s just a lot of features and things that we need to build there.”
Follow USA TODAY senior technology writer Jessica Guynn on Twitter @jguynn
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