Why Not Just Use Facebook? – Top Ten Reasons Facebook (Alone) Doesn’t Cut It for Neighbors Online

This is a public DRAFT blog post … actually probably three blog posts. Fire away in the comments.

In the last year we’ve had two neighborhoods with Facebook Groups invite us in, while in others a new generation of folks are grabbing the free latest tool (Facebook Groups) and not fully evaluating its limitations. This is a detailed answer to “Why Not Just Use Facebook?”


I moved my introduction to the bottom …


Post 2 – Top Ten Reasons Facebook (Alone) Doesn’t Cut It for Neighbors Online

Facebook Problems – General

  • 1.  Facebook Alone Eliminates Many – For all the talk of Facebook and Twitter, remember that 91% percent U.S. Adult Internet users use e-mail and 59% percent use it daily. E-mail is still the killer app. By choosing Facebook* alone, you’ve eliminated at least 1/3 of your potential online audience from the start compared to potentially reaching the 91% who use e-mail. Because you have the chatty folks on Facebook, you might not “see” this in terms of reduced posting (on a Facebook Group that is), but you’ve lost extensive inter-generational connection potential. Lurkers really matter. Note that 50% of those 50-64 online are NOT on Facebook. And 67% of those over 65 who are online are NOT on Facebook.  Further, 47% percent of all online users use social networking daily or 12% fewer than e-mail each day. However, one should not put all their eggs in one “interface” basket as younger Internet users check their e-mail less (need some numbers here). *Actually according to PewInternet.org it is 67% of online users using any social networking service – 92% of whom use Facebook.
  • 2. People Don’t Friend Many Neighbors - Facebook “friending” in general is not a big neighbor connector. Only 2% of a typical Facebook users 229 friends are “neighbors” (June 2011 by PewInternet.org). 7% are from community voluntary groups. Fundamentally Facebook is about connecting friends in personal private life. “Public life” community connecting is an auxiliary use that goes beyond the comfort level of what most Facebook users expect of the service.
  • 3. Facebook Gives You What You Like Most, Demotes the Rest – Facebook’s “EdgeRank” limits your exposure to posts of those you don’t interact with regularly, meaning the community building reach of regular wall posts is extremely limited. Facebook news streams “edges” out people and Pages with which you don’t engage. Also, frequent Facebook users miss older content as the river of updates flows along. Did you know that your typical Facebook wall post is only seen by 12% of your friends. So the odds of Facebook organically connecting neighbors who aren’t close friends is about zero. Another term for this is the filter bubble.
  • 4. Facebook Pages Don’t Work – Too Passive - Facebook Pages are the biggest flop for effective neighbor connecting. Pages while easy to “Like,” are the new “Hit” in terms of web metrics. Liking a page almost never results in sustained engagement. We do port excerpts from our forum’s full text web feeds into a dedicated Facebook Page for each of our forums … this leverages Facebook without relying on Facebook. Facebook Insights tell us that between 1% and 10% of our Likers actually see one of our forum excerpts in their News feed. Last year we tested Facebook advertising to build Likers in Frogtown and Cedar Riverside. Spending scarce resources to first reach people to Like the page and then having Facebook offer a new option to pay to “Promote” your posts to your Likers because the “EdgeRank” keeps the posts away from them feels a bit like an upgrade required scam. While every neighborhood association should have a Facebook Page, use it to channel content from your blog, e-mail newsletter, newspaper, and Twitter, etc. – do not let the “dead” feeling on most Pages cause you to think your neighbors are not interested in two-way engagement online. The technology design of Pages just stinks for those of us attempting to create connections among new people or building bridges among diverse cultures in the same neighborhood.
  • 5. Social Media Floods Are Not Inboxs for Review - Facebook and Twitter are torrents of information where what you missed over the last day or week has flooded by and you rarely go back more than a couple hours to see what you missed. With e-mail, while we complain about our boxes overflowing, we at least scan the subject lines of what we’ve received. If you are trying to create connections, the more broadcast nature of e-mail is important. (This is why Facebook Groups work better than Pages … they are invasive like e-mail lists.)
On a related note, we compile related stats in our Digital Inclusion for Community Voices working document.

Facebook Problems – Groups

The relative ease of starting a new online neighborhood group on Facebook is enticing nectar to many. I use them for a group with my relatives and for a Dad’s group. They are nice. However, for those connecting people in community life, they are quick high for those who follow the crowd. Here are some serious limitations once your group gets going:

  • 6. Small Group Design – Facebook Groups (version 2) were designed for small, often private groups of under 50 people. They removed the reference to “50” people from their support materials, but keep that in mind.
  • 7. Mystery Delivery Settings Change – As noted above, what works with Facebook Groups is that they are e-mail invasive. Meaning, when people join, by default new content is pushed to members via e-mail unless they change their personal settings. The problem is that at some point between 150 and 200 group members (they haven’t published any information about this), Facebook changes the default e-mail delivery settings for new users from “NEW POSTS” to “POSTS FROM FRIENDS.” This Facebook preference for all things “friends” makes it extremely difficult to create more democratic horizontal communication connections among community members who do not already know each other. This setting seems to explain why discussions seem a bit clique-like within the large community-level Facebook groups I monitor. Also, as the typical e-mail list treat original posts and reply equitably, the default on small Facebook Groups is to only notify members of new posts or topics and not all activity on a group.  This in our view reinforces existing social hierarchy by diminishing the reach of the person who has a valuable comment.
  • 8. Trapped – With Facebook you “get what you get, and don’t pitch a fit” as a group creator and you have no control over features, default settings, their privacy approach, advertising, etc. … what you like about Facebook Groups might be gone tomorrow. One key feature we have for example is limiting people to two or three posts a day. Many Facebook groups suffer from a few people posting dozens of comments each week or going completely off-topic because that is how they use Facebook. People begin to tune out when there isn’t some balance in participation. Anyone try to export a group out of Facebook, you can’t. Even YahooGroups allowed this.
  • 9. Facebook Groups do not support attachments. For better or worse, urgent crime prevention notices, neighborhood association agendas, community event fliers, etc. are mostly in Word or PDF. Unless they are on the public web somewhere (and they often are not) the content is not easy to share via a Facebook Group. Cutting and pasting is something we try to encourage on our system, but most everyday users don’t do that. It looks like they have made some updates.
  • 10. “Friends” Can Add Friends Without Permission – Facebook Groups allow people to be added against their will or without their permission by their “friends.” The organic nature of activity on Facebook leading to actions and sharing by others is powerful, but our view is that people should decide to join a public online forum via an invitation with a greater understanding of who has access to their posts, information, etc.
  • 11. Facebook Groups Lack Essential Online Facilitation Tools – Facebook Groups do not support pre-moderation –  your only option as a group admin is to delete offending content after it is widely shared. This means you don’t have the tools to help new members come to understand the scope of the online group and instead are set up in an adversarial position where banning someone is the only viable option. We typically moderate the posts of new members to catch spammers and those coming in outside of our terms and civility requirements to attack someone. Remember in “public life” you will eventually get community members who hate each other off-line who will bring their conflict online. One really messy fight that flares up in minutes can kill a forum for the hundreds you worked so hard to gather over years. Once people fear that they might be similarly attacked, the public space you’ve built so carefully is dead. On a related note, the reason one neighborhood association ask us to start an “independent” Neighbors Forum is that some group members were using the report abuse/spam features to censor views with which they did not agree and the Facebook Group admin has no access to audit trail information about who caused legitimate content to be deleted automatically without human review.
  • 12. Say Goodbye to Community Serving Professionals – Professionals in government, non-profits, and community organizations are often blocked from Facebook at work or do not have Facebook accounts for professional community outreach purposes. If an organization is on Facebook, online interaction is often centralized in one person or a communications team. This means many of those who serve our communities are essentially excluded from interacting with us publicly online. Engagement with public officials and getting a response from government is central to online neighborhood connecting that works.
Ultimately, the online hosting decision is about evaluating trade-offs. Our outreach approach is key to our success and without inclusion would be difficult. If you are OK with the connecting younger, more wired, wealthier, the most chatty folks, etc. and you don’t see the value in signing people up at community events, door to door, etc. then Facebook Groups are an easy choice. Depending upon your outreach or volunteer capacity they may even be the best choice even if you do care about inclusion. It is not a choice that I would make however, if you want to build bridges among ALL people in your community.

Post 3 – What We Do Differently

See our blog for unfolding lessons.

If you’ve followed our Why Not Just Use Facebook series, deciding to choose a different tools or approaches also requires some consideration. Going with an established non-profit reliant on volunteer capacity or a speculative .com start-up with an undeveloped business model but technology money to burn is also a factor important to some. No matter what you do, make sure the service allows you to move your online group to another service should that ever be necessary.

Here are some things we do differently:

  • Technology Choice for Participants – In short, we reach people where they are based on their preferred technology interface. The open source GPL GroupServer platform we use is essentially a really smart e-mail list and a basic web forum with minimal social networking. Like blogs, each of our forums (example) produces a full-text web feed (Facebook Groups and Pages do not have feeds and YahooGroups and GoogleGroups only produce excerpts). From our open web feed, we send excerpts to Facebook Pages and subject lines to Twitter with local hashtags appended. Our e-mail posts and daily e-mail digest options are extremely mobile friendly as more of our users participant via smart phones. We are also low-bandwidth friendly as attached files and photos are placed on the server and just one click away via e-mail. Creating a full Facebook App and perhaps mobile apps (we prefer more accessible and cost-effective mobile friendly web sites) would fit with our goal of reaching people where are. We also need to working on our design … being the “it just works” Craiglist of community engagement only goes so far because for some users it looks old-fashioned.
  • Real Inclusion with Paper –  Online-only outreach brings you the already most connected, the most wired, and reduces diversity because existing social networks are reinforces and new bridges not built. The cornerstone of our inclusive outreach is the use of the paper sign-up sheet. People can opt-in on a paper form at a community event or even when our outreach team goes door to door. While YahooGroups still allows you to “Add” someone rather than just “Invite” someone, GoogleGroups doesn’t and if you aren’t friends with someone on Facebook, you can’t add them either even if they gave you permission off-line.
  • Democratically Inspired Terms of Service – Our “freedom of assembly” model is supported by our crafted use of technology. When you use a third party service you get their terms, their copyright, and their change decisions. The “price” for free service might seem right, but it is important to weigh the costs and benefits.
  • Effective Facilitation – In some ways, technology is a commodity, and the cornerstone of almost all local online community building is the person(s) who starts the online space, recruits the members, seeds initial content, prompts exchange, and facilitate the group through bumpy patches in particular. One of the mission-based reasons we created the Locals Online community of practice was to say, let’s all help each other out and trade notes no matter what platform we use. As a non-profit we can be far more open-source about sharing what works and behind the scenes we connect all of our volunteer forum managers peer to peer.
  • Open, Accessible, and Searchable – While small nearest neighbor online groups of 100-200 households should be private and not be in Google (we are adding block level options), our forums covering population areas of 5,000 to  15,000 people are by intent very very public. Have you ever tried searching past posts to a Facebook Group? It is nearly impossible. By allowing Google access to our groups and supporting our own search options, the community value generated in our forums is far more accessible and open. Heck, our forum’s now use the Creative Commons to encourage broad sharing of our exchanges. If your goal is to create a protected virtual gated community excluding local business owners, folks who work at the local park, etc. our approach is not for you. If you want to intentionally build bridges among diverse neighbors with inclusion in a way that raises community voices and helps set the public agenda by interfacing with local public officials who serve us, then our model and technology might be a great fit for your neighborhood.

Please add your feedback in the comments! Or here on Facebook. 🙂

Please add your own “Why Not Just Use Facebook?” answers or rebuttals.


Post 1 – Introduction

First, let’s be positive about Facebook and note the four main reasons why people use Facebook as their core platform for their new neighbor connecting online today:

  1. Lot’s of people use it, particularly chatty folks
  2. It is fundamentally about interaction among people (almost exclusively for private life exchange, which is OK for neighbors on your block but less so beyond)
  3. It is relatively easy to get someone to “Like” a Facebook Page or even “Join” a Facebook Group compared to getting them to sign up for something new on another service (Facebook has monopoly-like power)
  4. The viral power of seeing your “friends” like, share, join, etc. something as well as invitations from those you trust

For the inspired neighborhood or community leader or host who is willing to commit some time to connect their neighbors online (a linchpin role, no matter the technology), Facebook appears to be the easiest solution.

It is not the best solution to serve neighbors online, particularly if you put all your eggs in the Facebook basket.

Facebook is admittedly the easiest way to get started if you are a go it alone kind of person. The technology is the easy part. Unfortunately they (and many other .com site) lock you in and you are vulnerable to their terms, technology changes, copyright claims, privacy approaches, etc.

I am not going to get into a knee jerk anti-Facebook rant. Like most, I too love Facebook for connecting with friends and family and sharing pictures and funny stories about my kids. Like most people, I don’t like using Facebook in “public” or community life and would love to quickly cleave all of my professional contacts out my core Facebook “News Feed” experience.

Digging In …

Let’s be honest – most new neighbor to neighbor online group connecting is happening on Facebook Groups. Not on Facebook Pages. Neighbor connecting is definitely not happening via everyday Facebook friending. This is of course mostly speculation because you really can’t get real numbers and “new” is my key qualifier.

Most of the Facebook Groups are private, nearly impossible to find or search, and the ones that work are growing word of mouth. Like YahooGroups starting in the late 1990’s there are probably far more failed online group attempts than successes, but successes there are out there.

As our non-profit has evolved from the city-wide more political online town hall to embrace strongly inclusive, very public neighborhood-level community life exchange, we are bumping into other mostly commercial models that are creating smaller, private, resident-only online groups. Some don’t create online groups, but instead focus on sharing tools, local group purchasing etc. While our bottom line is real inclusion and community engagement and their’s is ultimately to generate profit, we all need to generate revenue for sustainability. So the “Why not just use Facebook?” question is both a question for us and for the broader neighbor connecting field.

More on Facebook Groups Benefits

Let me just say, that if I was a solo individual who wanted to organize my neighbors online on my own with a “tool,” like the generations before who simply used a cc: chain on e-mail (probably still the majority of nearest neighbor groups spawned by a neighborhood BBQ, etc.), YahooGroups, or Google Groups, I would start a Facebook Group today.

  • Facebook uses real names. Real names has been to the cornerstone of our approach since 1994. Civility is built on real name accountability. (Prior to Facebook, we were one of the few sites on the web that required real names. It works.)
  • Facebook has the chatty folks and 66% of U.S. adult Internet users are on Facebook (use social networking sites).
  • No new logins and passwords to remember.
  • From appearances, Facebook Groups work just like the extremely effective e-mail list format that took hold in the late 1990s.
  • Facebook Groups number one strength is that acquiring new group members is relatively easy compared to the effort to get people to join new services and sites. Both a plus and a minus is the fact that “friends” can join their friends without their prior permission – they have to opt-out if added that way.
However, I am not a solo go it alone individual. I see the value in joining other neighbor connectors in a peer to peer support network with other E-Democracy Forum Manager volunteers. I want to use open source tools where I can craft the technology to better serve the community needs we identify.

9 thoughts on “Why Not Just Use Facebook? – Top Ten Reasons Facebook (Alone) Doesn’t Cut It for Neighbors Online”

  1. Good post. When I saw the title, I thought “Reason #1 – you don’t own your space” and that was about it. So I’m glad to see more detail.

    Although, I’d really stress the power of email (ie, you can communicate more personally and effectively via email) and the fact that if you stick 100% with Facebook you are 100% dependent on them not changing the rules down the road. It’s so important that you own your own platform.

    The rest of your points, while useful and insightful, are subordinate, IMO.

    Love what you do, even though my local community work is suffering lately. Alas…


  2. As Mark (abobe) alluded to, FaceBook holds all the control on their space. Your post might be dated by next week if FB (aka Zuck) decides to make big changes.

    The other BIG reason I oppose Facebook is that it’s a walled garden and not part of the open web commons. Say what you will about Google and Twitter, they support the web as a commons.


  3. I set up a Facebook group called “North Talk” earlier this year, and I still believe that e-democracy is a better model. For one thing, I immediately looked at the rules for e-democracy and used many of them for the Facebook forum.

    One thing that e-democracy offers that’s better than Facebook is that their set of rules is seen as more impartial and is de-personalized. When administering the page, my decisions and those of other admins are frequently called out. This can lead to a topic quickly being derailed by discussions about the page administration. While that is against the rules of my page, it’s very hard to contain.

    Facebook does not allow for a daily limit of posts. The lack of such a feature does enable conversations to happen in a way that e-democracy does not. However, often times less is more. In the example above, someone who is displeased with forum administration but wants to continue engaging in dialogue on the page is by the nature of e-democracy highly incentivized to deal with that issue privately. And when a hot-button topic arises between to people, the page can be easily dominated by that discussion much more so than when there is a posting limit.

    Facebook groups are also much more insular. While I structured North Talk to be as open as FB allows, it’s harder to search by topic, it’s harder to find topical discussions through non-Facebook internet searches, and it’s harder to link those dialogues for people who do not have a Facebook account.

    I do like some of what Facebook can offer for online communities; if I didn’t, I’d either leave the page or step down as one of its administrators. But I like what the e-democracy model can offer and believe it can coexist with Facebook forums.

  4. The other feature Facebook has is a “blocking” function. This is great for what it does, but terrible for community dialogue. If I have someone blocked or they blocked me, I cannot see their comments. I also cannot see any thread that they have initiated. I’ve seen quite a few conversations get derailed because people can’t see the whole dialogue, or offlist people will email me and say “I’ve heard about such-and-such a conversation but I can’t see it. Why?”

    And when there is high traffic on the page or on Facebook in general, there are glitches over when comments appear. I’ve never seen glitches from e-democracy.

  5. Related to your comment on the information flood that is Facebook, it is very difficult to find content older than a few days that has been posted to a person or group. The site’s search engine does not search through posts, so the user is forced to manually look through old posts to find content. This makes Facebook less useful as a repository of information compared to E-Democracy’s web-interface or the search functions of an email client (kind of ironic given Facebook’s marketing push about Timeline being a life chronicle.)

    In my opinion, Facebook’s interface is another problem, as it is built for short messages. It often displays the first 4 or 6 lines of a comment and requires a click for the rest of that comment. Its text box is fairly small. Even the text is small. I’ve had in-depth conversations on Facebook, but I generally find it is more enjoyable to have those discussions via email or a forum.

    My knee-jerk reaction to the post as-is is that it is long by blog standard, so only the most committed will read everything. Are you thinking of publishing this as a single, long post, or turning it into a series of posts?

  6. Thank you for your feedback. Yes, it really would be far more ideal as a three part blog series.

    Jeff, you comments from the North Talk experience are really appreciated. You are doing a lot of good on that forum. I encourage folks to check it out: https://www.facebook.com/groups/396688980347945/

    Say, it does look like Facebook Groups now accept attachments.

    Finally, let me just say that the quick “one click” to join aspect of Facebook Groups has to be incorporated into our site more aggressively (we do allow Facebook-based registration, but probably need to make it even easier) or those starting new forums will simply say, heck I don’t care if I can’t reach some people or have the features I need IF recruiting people to simply get started isn’t super super easy.

  7. I would turn around this to say that Facebook is for the present time, should be part of any online strategy around neighborhoods. Emphasis on the “part” where Facebook is usually, for the time being, the Times Square, the main street, where most of the action is.

    But with a neighborhood, there are other issues that Facebook may not be able to answer:
    * Identity- most people still have their own online identities separate from Facebook, especially their email URI. And if you create other online presences, preferably with one that radiates out to Facebook, Twitter, GooglePlus, other social or media systems.
    * Core information- Everything that should be archived or permanent, should be hosted at a site that has its own domain. You can always syndicate out to Facebook, Twitter, GooglePlus, RSS, etc, but all should point to your site and your permanent presence. (note, also consider metadata standards that can help if you have the technical competence or great tools that do it for you, like Facebook OpenGraph, GoogleMap API, Dublin Core)
    * Communication- Facebook is a great way to communicate, but is plain vanilla email with listserves, or Google or Yahoo Groups, etc. And realtime audio, video, share screens, docs, whiteboards. Many of these are not easy or possible with Facebook.
    * Events- Facebook events is not the best way to get out an event. Eventbrite, GoogleCalendar, and numerous other systems have great events capabilities and especially can integrate with various personal calendars.
    * Rules based meetings/communication/doc creation- Sometimes there should be rules that make for a more productive or reliable method of reaching concensus. Steven is a master at this, but his ideas could never be implemented in Facebook. Nor could most organizations. Based on rules, workflow, access control, timing/deadlines, voting, etc., Facebook can not do any of these in any real way.

    Right now I am leading a neighborhood campaign to protect a local business. Facebook is a huge part of it, but other systems, like a central website, Change.org petition system, and tweeting, etc. makes it a more complete campaign.

    Daniel Bennett

  8. As a middle-aged male, I do not use fb as it offers no value. There is no return on my investment. It does nothing.

    It must do something for my kids. They use it until they are 18 and then delete everything.

    It’s offering gratification for somebody, but I dont know who.

    I have heard they change your email address without asking. So they are changing your digital identity, without consent. This might be what authorities and regimes do in a North Korean neighbourhood, not a supposedly free world one.

    950 million people sharing photos and drinking more Coke because of fb does not really help my community.

    A phone call to three people does. Or an email circular might.


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