19 Oct Will the decline of social networks also affect communities?
Social networks as we knew them in the past decade seem to be in decline. They are no longer spaces of interaction filled with thoughts posted by friends, but environments where we scroll through content suggested by algorithms. Where has the intimate conversation among peers gone? What has become of the many Facebook groups we used to call communities?
The role of social networks in community building
It is undeniable that communities as we know them today were born thanks to social networks. These platforms have accustomed us to communicate with strangers, to always stay connected with our network, and have provided a place to easily aggregate.
The role of Facebook, in particular, has been crucial. Facebook groups have been a fundamental tool for inviting people to connect around an idea, a need, or a shared desire. In these groups, people discussed, conversed, and often met outside the platform. In the most virtuous cases, efforts were made to co-create value, whether it was to empower women, foster neighborhood relationships, enhance the sense of a product, share knowledge about aquariums, and so on. It wasn’t the social network that created the community, but the willingness and determination of those who invested and tried; Facebook, however, represented an easy and immediate tool for experimentation.
What does the decline of Facebook mean for communities?
The decline of Facebook does not mean at all that the desire to connect and interact has disappeared. Most individuals have distanced themselves from the social network not because their desire to connect and converse has diminished; but because of the company’s choices that favored its own interests and failed to build reliable systems to protect its user’s data and privacy (the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal has certainly left its mark). People, at least up to this point, still seem to show a desire for aggregation, as they are seeking new places. In fact, those who want to launch a community still have several channels to do so.
Community platforms today
Foremost among them are Discord and Slack. These are not new platforms, as they have been around for a while and work very well for hosting communities, especially the former. However, they are not mainstream social networks and have a relatively high acquisition barrier. They are perfect for niche communities like gamers or developers, but less suitable for those who are not digitally savvy. To convince these target audiences to download the application and overcome the learning curve, a strong motivation and significant added value are needed.
Then there are group chats, the channels of the moment. Some believe they are the true successors to Facebook groups. It is no coincidence that Instagram, WhatsApp, and Telegram have been offering the ability to create group rooms for some time. These have the significant advantage of being organized by topics and primarily operate by invitation. They are also applications used daily and, therefore, suitable for all kinds of audiences. While they facilitate intimate and effective conversations among a few, these small numbers can, in the long run, fail to provide the necessary turnover to remain relevant and efficient.
There is also a third option, reserved for those with a larger budget: subscribing to one of the many cloud platforms that have grown in recent years to meet the needs of communities. These platforms allow you not to be at the mercy of social media whims, and provide access to member data analytics. However, they share the same problem as Discord and Slack, in that they require members to download a new application, which is not just a click away. It’s not a big deal, but the effort members must put in to reach the platform needs to be rewarded with value and consistency.
In short, the possibilities are not lacking. There is still fragmentation nonetheless, and those planning to launch a community must choose the most suitable channel with a greater awareness, having clear objectives, a target audience, and an acquisition strategy in mind.
Having a social network alone is not enough to create a community; a strategy is needed.
The decline of Facebook also raises another couple of observations. The first is that it is risky to rely on social media channels if you want to launch a community. These channels do not follow the interests of communities but rather the interests of their businesses, which lead them to change functionality and tools according to what suits them best. This happened to Facebook, which introduced more and more advertising, and even Twitter, now X, is subject to the whims of its new owner Musk. Therefore, social media are perfect for experimentation, but in the long run, it is advisable to have an exit strategy.
It is not a coincidence, in fact, that the groups that survived on Facebook are those that managed to innovate their relationship with their members over time. Among these, some left social media for promotional purposes only and simultaneously directed users to a dedicated platform on which they have developed products, services, and events. Others continue to nurture their Facebook group, but have also invested in a broader strategy that includes member involvement in product co-design, a complementary territorial presence to the digital one, and a system of roles and rewards for members.
In conclusion, the decline of Facebook seems to tell us what we already knew: to create a community, a strategy is needed. One that includes a experimentation phase to plan actions in the long run. And this prototyping phase, today more than ever, must have an idea of who to involve, why, how, and where. Because if until a few years ago, in the Facebook era, it was possible to rely on novelty and the channel for people to arrive, today it is increasingly evident that launching a community requires a conscious strategy and a lasting vision.