When Briana Goodman gave birth to twins in 2015, she found herself surrounded by people telling her the best way to take care of her newborns. Any time she would bring up using a sleep-training method that encourages babies to cry it out and self-soothe, everyone seemed to have a judgmental opinion to share. But there was one place that Goodman, a clothing reseller in a suburb of Baltimore, could always turn when she wanted to talk about her preferred tactic: a Facebook group called “Support Group for ‘Moms On Call’ Method.”
Goodman was overjoyed to find a group of like-minded women who felt they could freely share their experiences without fear of being criticized. The group “was a very, very large part of my life and kept me in touch with reality,” Goodman told me over the phone. “It changed my life for the better because it taught me how to get my kids to sleep through the night … It was really nice to have other people, other moms.” Now an administrator of the group, she helps mothers with kids younger than hers navigate one of the most stressful periods of child-rearing.
But using Facebook—which has been dogged by privacy-breach and political-misinformation scandals in the past several years—to foster a community like this leaves some members, including Goodman, uneasy. The Cambridge Analytica debacle, in which 87 million Facebook users had their personal data leaked, and the Facebook Papers’ revelation that the company spread false information about the 2016 presidential election, have brought Facebook’s unethical systems into focus. “It’s just one of those things, where, for better or for worse, [Facebook] is attached to us in a way that I don’t know if we can ever undo,” Goodman said. “You can see that it’s not good, but what else are you supposed to do?” She’s one of the many people for whom Facebook groups provide an incomparable social experience, but who are also struggling to reconcile that with the platform’s antidemocratic practices.
According to the company, Facebook groups connect more than 1.8 billion people every month. One of the key benefits of the feature is that it lets users self-segregate into curated mini-societies, such as “subtle asian traits,” a group dedicated to cheeky memes about the Asian diaspora, or “Disapproving Corgis,” which features humorous photos of the dogs. Both groups have more than 1 million members. Others, such as “White People. DOING Something.,” allow people to have difficult conversations about race in a constructive manner. Another group, “African Mums in Deutschland,” helps women foster connections when they find themselves living somewhere new. Not all groups function as a social haven for users, but many do. One woman I spoke with, who’s part of a group for queer farmers, told me, “I have been aware of how much it is kind of like my lifeline to other people.”
Several Facebook-group administrators and members described to me the conundrum of relying on an imperfect platform to create strong, and for many people invaluable, communities. They understand that their groups exist on a controversial site, but they also say that not many alternatives have the capacity to build fellowship the way that Facebook does. “As someone who really tries to live the most harm-reduced life possible, there’s this almost defeat I find when I think about using Facebook,” Alexx Duvall, a co-founder of “NYC Plant Friends Hangout,” told me over the phone. Even though the group, which plans real-life and virtual events for plant lovers, has an Instagram account and an email listserv, Duvall finds that the community it cultivates on Facebook is ultimately more active. Nurturing that rare level of connection can feel more important than other concerns people may have about Facebook’s ethics.
A study from New York University’s Governance Lab supports that notion: It found that most Facebook-group members and administrators are more concerned about facilitating productive discussions than privacy. “These [groups] are pockets of democratic self-governance within a largely antidemocratic space,” Beth Simone Noveck, one of the report’s authors, told me over the phone. In fact, the Groups feature was promoted, in part, to rehabilitate the company’s “antidemocratic” reputation. Facebook launched Groups in 2010, but it didn’t pivot to focus on the feature until 2016, after the company faced severe scrutiny over its role in perpetuating misinformation during the presidential campaign. To drive engagement, Facebook marketed the feature heavily, claiming that the company was creating “meaningful” communities of like-minded people. The tactic worked. “It’s a very positive narrative for the company and hugely profitable because all of the work is being done by the members, and by the moderators,” Noveck said. (Facebook has a slew of upgrades planned for Groups in 2022, including allowing members to create even more focused subgroups by region.)
A corporate entity touting the creation of “meaningful” communities may sound bleak, but the claim has borne out for some. When Kelly Lavoie’s seven-month-old daughter was first diagnosed with infantile spasms, a form of epilepsy that can cause serious harm to infants’ developing brains, she did what everyone who has just received a devastating diagnosis would do—she Googled. “I was devastated by the stuff that I saw out there,” Lavoie, a computer programmer based in Wisconsin, told me. “They said that [these babies] wouldn’t live productive lives, that some of them die, that they regress back to being a newborn and they never come out of that stage.” It wasn’t until she discovered the Facebook group “Infantile Spasms” that some of her anxiety retreated. She found parents like her, some of whom had been members for years, helping newcomers understand different medications and processes, and offering their support to anyone seeking comfort and empathy. Still, Facebook’s privacy violations linger in the back of her mind. “As a computer programmer, it’s very concerning. I know how damaging the breaches can be,” she said. “And yes, I pause for that. But [I have] a disabled kid.” She has resolved to “take precautions” with regard to her online security, but ultimately, the group is too important for her to give up.
Even when their children make a full recovery, people in “Infantile Spasms” have stuck around to help others. “Some parents have typical kids,” Holly Rickman, an administrator of the group, told me over the phone. “Some parents have kids that haven’t had as good of a trajectory. But there’s this sense of reaching back to your fellow man.” For caregivers like Rickman, concerns over privacy have to be weighed against the effect that groups like these have had on members’ lives. “Anybody can take your information at any point, and it’s kind of at your own risk. But at the same time, the benefit that you gain supersedes the risk,” she said. Rickman told me that this group is one of the only places she could find where a condition like infantile spasms, which affects 2,000 to 2,500 children in the U.S. each year, is discussed.
The utility of Facebook Groups has at times extended beyond interpersonal connection: During the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, medical professionals used the feature to share important information and resources about COVID-19. And groups like “Infantile Spasms” that focus on rare medical conditions can be indispensable to those desperate for information and advice. It’s clear why the people who have created these unique spaces may struggle to abandon a harmful platform, especially if they see Groups as essential to their well-being. The negative headlines may continue to plague Facebook, but the relationships formed within Groups will most likely keep people logged in.