"If you want to silence a room, say you've got cancer, say your dad or husband went to jail, or say your husband died," Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, said while introducing a round-table luncheon this week. The seven women who joined Sandberg are administrators for Facebook groups that serve as support systems for people dealing with those difficult issues — the ones people might feel uncomfortable speaking about offline.
The event, held at Facebook's New York headquarters, was conducted as an intimate follow-up to the much larger Communities Summit that took place two weeks ago in Chicago. During that summit, Mark Zuckerberg discussed Facebook's new mission to bring the world closer together, citing Facebook groups as a central part of making this goal a reality. When Refinery29 spoke with Zuckerberg ahead of the summit, he emphasised that meaningful groups, ones that foster a sense of community and belonging online, are the ones that matter. A group for yellow lab lovers is cute, but not necessarily one that inspires a true connection with other Facebook users.
All seven representatives at the round table are the leaders of what, by Zuckerberg's definition, constitute meaningful groups. Amanda Quraishi heads up the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a group that works to unite Muslim and Jewish women; A'Driane Nieves leads the secret group Tessera Collective, for women of colour who are dealing with mental health issues; Latoya Becks runs Dedicated Unashamed Wives of Prisoners, for women whose partners are incarcerated; Jessica Latten heads up Natural Hair, a support group that addresses the societal pressures around natural hair care, as well as issues of domestic abuse and suicide; Elizabeth Behrens is an administrator of Be The Bridge To Racial Unity, a non-profit promoting racial tolerance among members of the Christian church; Toni Carey is the leader of Black Girls RUN!, a group that encourages a healthy lifestyle among women of colour; and Stephanie Lollino runs You Are Not Alone — Dealing With Spinal Cord Injury, for family members of people with spinal cord injuries.
While some of these groups, such as Be The Bridge To Racial Unity, began offline, their Facebook group helped unite local chapters into a national community.
The benefits of developing an online community are many: Members can be exposed to new ideas and meet people from other parts of the world, and the group can grow and have a more of an impact than it might have on a local level.
"A lot of the people who join our group are still worshipping in places that are oblivious to [racial tolerance] or are just wilfully ignorant," Behrens said. "They feel more like they're in a church in our Facebook group than when they walk into a building where they worship because they're like, 'Oh, these are people who are actually living out what they believe.'"
But opening up an online forum leads to the struggles that any digital platform faces — hate speech, trolls, and less privacy for members who are sharing intimate details of their lives. It's ultimately up to the moderators to decide who can join, who can stay, and what types of posts should and shouldn't be allowed.
After attending Facebook's Communities Summit, Becks, who runs Dedicated Unashamed Wives of Prisoners, said she was encouraged by the interest in and support for the group, but didn't want to compromise its integrity by changing who could join.
"I don't want to say we're in hiding, but we stick together and are very protective of each other because there's such a stigma on us," she said. "[After the Summit], we had a lot of people who were not wives of prisoners wanting to join because they were curious and wanted to say good job, but I couldn't. I didn't want to make it like a show."
Those who join Be The Bridge To Racial Unity are not allowed to post in the group for three months. They are also required to read an 18-page memo about the group's principals. Moderators have no way of knowing for sure if this reading is done, but they can usually tell when the three months are up and new members start posting. Behrens still sees anti-immigrant and homophobic posts that must be taken down, but has found that the three-month probation helps cut down on these.
Working to develop tolerance online is a taxing task, especially for administrators who didn't expect it to turn into a full-time job. Facebook is hoping that some of its new tools announced at the Communities Summit, including ways to sort new member requests by gender or location and simplified ways for deleting discriminatory posts, will help make moderators' roles easier.
Still, anyone who thinks running a meaningful Facebook Group is a hobby is sorely mistaken. "We've grown into this bear that just keeps growing," said Carey, founder of Black Girls RUN! "I'm at a point in my life where I'm saying, I've been doing this for eight years and am a little exhausted by it. It's a lot to manage."