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.)