I Sat Through the First Stop on Facebook's Feel-Good Road Show

Amid scandal, the company is traveling across America to teach local businesses how to make it big online.

Mark Zuckerberg taking a selfie with a group of people
Jeff Roberson / AP

Some time ago, a man named Stephen found himself yearning for his home-state’s famous peaches. He’d grown up in Georgia, but lived in Nashville, Tennessee, where the peaches—desiccated, tasteless things—barely merited the name. Sensing a market, Stephen started selling Georgia peaches out of the back of his truck.

The peach truck was a hit, as was Stephen’s subsequent online peach store. In just over a year, he saw his sales double. What was Stephen’s secret?

He had bought a bunch of advertisements on Facebook.

So said a speaker at an event put on by, yes, Facebook. Stephen’s good fortune was one of many success stories paraded before an audience of small-business workers in downtown St. Louis last month. There was the coffee brewer, the boutique shrubbery grower, the woman who manufactures a device that turns vegetables into spaghetti. Learn the right tools, the audience was told, and you too could see “in-SANE” results.

The event was the inaugural stop in Community Boost, a kind of roving technical college that Facebook plans to bring to at least 30 mid-sized U.S. cities this year. Each installment offers a few days of lectures, smaller “breakout” sessions, and one-on-one consultations, free for anyone who shows up. The goal, according to Facebook, is to teach business owners and employees the “digital skills” to make it online.

Stephen’s story came from a lecturer named Chris Curtis. (Stephen, who’s now touring his peach truck around the country, confirmed Facebook’s impact on his business over email.) Curtis looked about 22 and pitched Facebook’s advertising tools with the smooth conviction of a seasoned salesman. This included, as any good salesman would do, ignoring the seismic scandal that had just shaken the company he represented. Eight days earlier, news had erupted that the voter-profiling firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested the data of millions of people on Facebook. The revelation had surfaced a deep unease with Facebook’s data policies—including the surprisingly specific ways it allows advertisers to target and track users. Now, here was Facebook with three days’ worth of classes on exactly how to do that.

For the most part, the crowd in St. Louis was thrilled to have them there. The attendees, after all, weren’t just Facebook users—they included Facebook’s customers, the small- and medium-sized business owners who make up the vast majority of Facebook’s advertisers. Over the years, businesses increasingly have come to rely on Facebook’s various free and paid services as portals to their own potential customers. The attendees were at Community Boost, they told me, to sharpen their skills—to learn how to cut through the noise and find, through the use of Facebook’s data, exactly those people most likely to buy their products.

In his lecture, Curtis never mentioned his last name. And, strangely, the program’s on-the-ground Facebook reps at first refused to provide it. Asked whether he actually worked for Facebook, they said that Community Boost’s pool of lecturers consisted of both Facebook employees and “digital-skills partners,” and didn’t specify which Curtis was. (After multiple follow-ups, Facebook sent me Curtis’s last name and confirmed that he worked for the company.)

This wasn’t the only obfuscation I encountered at Community Boost—and things got weirder from there.

Given the intensity of the Cambridge Analytica coverage, I half-expected pickets, bullhorns, marauders in rubber Mark Zuckerberg masks when I arrived. What I found instead were two idling valets and, inside a bright, high-ceilinged registration hall, a kind of historical reenactment of life as it was lived eight days earlier. The host building, known as the Globe, was once the home of an esteemed regional newspaper. Today, it houses a 150,000-square-foot data center, along with acres of cavernous, haphazardly partitioned loft-space. Community Boost took up the entirety of its third floor, an area large enough to warrant its own You-Are-Here-style floor map—though the crowd was mostly confined to one massive room, divided between a makeshift auditorium and an array of one-on-one instruction booths.

Community Boost was an outgrowth of Zuckerberg’s conviction—a souvenir of his year spent traveling across America—that “strong small businesses create strong communities.” At the event, I spoke with the people who had brought Zuckerberg’s vision to life: a skeleton crew of three underslept, casually dressed Facebook employees. Aneesh Raman, a former Obama speechwriter who now heads up Facebook’s “economic impact programming,” did most of the talking. “We’ve long thought, as a company worried about strong communities, that small businesses are core to that, given their role in job creation,” he told me. By teaching people digital skills, Community Boost was part of an effort to “help spur greater economic growth.”

So what are these digital skills, specifically?

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer,” Raman said. “It’s a local answer, based on opportunities that exist on a local level.”

The St. Louis event did indeed have local flourishes. Twenty-five scholarships were awarded to a local coding academy. A Cardinals helmet was elevated above the crowd on a small table. There were pouches of regionally mixed granola at the snack bar. But the localized digital skills themselves, so far as I could tell, largely consisted of perfecting targeted News Feed advertisements. There were a handful of general business classes offered, but Community Boost’s core curriculum consisted of three main-stage courses: “Getting Started with Facebook,” “Finding New Customers with Facebook,” and “Taking Facebook Ads to the Next Level.”

These lectures taught attendees how to set up a Business Page; how to make a post and pay to have that post shown to people; how to identify potential customers on the basis of age, sex, location, interests, behaviors, any other quantifiable metric. Mostly, the lectures portrayed Facebook as a kind of woke boyfriend: “Facebook wants you to be in complete control at all times”; “Whatever works for you is gonna work for Facebook.” Occasionally, a pushier Facebook came into view. “It’s completely up to you,” said one lecturer, “but your ads are going to perform a little bit better if you allow Facebook to automatically place them.”

Eventually, the lecturers hauled out the hard stuff. Those of us in the audience who had maybe flirted with buying a rug, decided not to buy that rug, and then found ads for that very rug plastered all over our Facebook feeds for six straight months were suddenly enlightened: With a tool called Facebook Pixel, we were told, you can track and target visitors to your website. If you already have a customer base, Facebook can find you a group of users exactly like it.

That tool—“Lookalike Audience”—was not to be confused with “Custom Audience,” which, we were told, allows business owners to track down and target past customers via uploading any email addresses they’ve gathered in the course of doing business. This last bit was obsolete within 72 hours, when news had leaked that Facebook would soon require advertisers to prove they’d consensually acquired each uploaded address, a task so logistically vexing that marketing sites were already predicting the tool’s demise.

In the lead-up to Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress last week, Facebook would ultimately overhaul or purge a number of its data policies. Many features that survived unchanged were diminished anyway—for instance, the option to donate to nonprofits directly through Facebook. “I can pretty much tell you the people I work for are not gonna do that, at this point,” said Terry Sibbitts, a nonprofit employee who attended the event.

Still, the majority of tools showcased at Community Boost remain highly effective ways of reaching people. The crowd’s size and interest reflected this. As an attendee named Mallory Lewis put it, Facebook’s advantages are clear: “increased customers and increased money.”

Roaming the building, I encountered a couple of young people mulling career shifts, hoping Facebook might smooth the way—a gourmet cotton-candy events-company owner looking to branch into “coaching and consulting,” a copywriter “on the edge of running several small businesses.” Some people had just come for the basics. “I’m from the old school,” said a woman who identified herself as Sister Sherrill. Sister Sherrill was talking with Harvey McNaughton, a co-owner of a St. Louis marketing group, who said he’d recently paid a 13-year-old to “help me with the internet.”

But Sherrill and McNaughton were among several attendees who admitted that they found Community Boost’s programming a bit rudimentary. These were not in-depth courses; no feature was dwelled on for more than a couple of minutes. Todd Kimmel, a digital marketer with a focus on the auto industry, seemed actively aggrieved by the shallow focus. “Everything that they talked about was review for me,” he said. “It was elementary.” He had been hoping for some information on Facebook’s new car-focused marketing tools, which he’d been trying to get someone at Facebook to explain to him for months. “They speak in parables,” he said.

Claire McDonald, another small-business owner, had a similar reaction. “They’re very general—like, you should use an events page,” she said. “Well, why? And how? And what is the return on that?”

Indeed, the lecturers often seemed less interested in explaining how these tools worked than in letting the audience know they existed. Occasionally, the lectures blurred into lists of advertising tools recited with evangelical enthusiasm. At other times, they took on the strained tone of infomercials:

FACEBOOK LECTURER: Quick show of hands: How many of you guys think this [advertisement designed through the use of a Facebook-owned app] was done in a nice, high-end kitchen, with a fancy camera?

AUDIENCE: [confused mumbling]

FACEBOOK LECTURER: It was actually made with a phone.

This tone extended to my interactions with a surreally proliferating team of comms and PR reps, who quickly moved from helpful to hyper-vigilant journalist stalking. At least one—and sometimes as many as five—accompanied me from the moment I arrived, all unfailingly cheerful, offering coffee, bringing me fruit cups and granola bars, relaying talking points, encouraging a session at the “Profile Picture Station.” If I sneaked off to a lecture, my seat would be quietly surrounded within minutes. If I interviewed an audience member, one of the reps would suddenly pop up behind us. By the end, I found myself earnestly asking for permission to use the bathroom. (Facebook maintains that I was treated the same as all other reporters in attendance.)

It felt like the panic in Menlo Park had taken a toll. At one point, a comms guy jogged up to me with a laptop in one hand. He looked about one stubbed toe away from a breakdown. He asked me if I was the same Daniel Kolitz who’d made something called The Data Drive; he gestured toward his screen, which showed a disembodied head of Mark Zuckerberg with flashing red eyes. I had indeed made the Data Drive—an elaborate Facebook parody set in a world in which Facebook has lost all of its user data—and told him so.

Then I noticed that he was tearing up. He told me how hard his team had worked, how early they’d all woken up.

This was a lot to take in. The emotional register had shifted too quickly: from chipper small talk to moist-eyed panic in the space of a minute. Suddenly I was on the verge of tearing up. As business people streamed around us, eating complimentary Cheetos, I found myself reassuring him: I wasn’t there to take Community Boost down. He then stood by me as I said the same, at his request, to every other Facebook employee I’d spoken to.

The main concern, I was told, was that I was out to mock the many successful attendees the team had introduced to me—like the founder of a financial-literacy group for black women, which had ballooned to 32,551 members in just four months and helped a fellow member get back on her feet after a flood destroyed her home; or the representative from the Susan G. Komen breast-cancer foundation, who claimed the new Facebook features surrounding nonprofit donations had changed the game for them; or the furniture-refurbisher who’d earned a full million in 2017 off of five grand in Facebook ads, and still managed to find time to teach DIY woodworking to women trapped in psychologically abusive marriages.

I hadn’t come to St. Louis to ridicule hard-working business owners, either. Facebook does benefit America’s small businesses, often to an extraordinary degree. And that’s exactly what makes it dangerous to them. The more business Facebook enables, the more dependent businesses become. And while the company seems to be weathering the Cambridge Analytica debacle, what happens if—or, perhaps inevitably, as—more crises hit? The people most vulnerable to some kind of mass social exodus are precisely the ones Facebook is so assiduously cultivating with Community Boost.

For the most part, the attendees in St. Louis seemed willing to take that risk. The furniture refurbisher, Nicole Genz, told me that 90 percent of her sales are made through Facebook. “It’s a free platform,” she said. “You can’t get better than that.”