Facebook’s plan to build community with hiring and $10M in grants

Facebook will award up to $1 million to five community leaders and $50,000 to 100 more to fund their ideas for how to strengthen people’s online and offline connections. Facebook will also hire double the number of engineers currently working on safety-related causes in its London office. These were a few of the big announcements made at today’s Facebook Communities Summit Europe.

The moves show Facebook isn’t scared to throw its sizable wallet around on behalf of its new mission statement to bring people closer together. The company is dealing with an onslaught of criticism around polarization, election interference, fake news, censorship, sucking money out of journalism, and negative impacts on well-being from overuse of its social network. Facebook knows it can’t come up with all the ideas to offset these issues and become more of a force for good in the world, so it’s crowdsourcing them with the new Community Leadership grants.

Facebook threw its first Communities Summit in Chicago back in June to bring together hundreds of admins of the most influential Facebook Groups. The company sees the Groups product as one of its best contributions to the fabric of society, so it’s investing more in both the actual product and the people who use it.

“2017 was a really tough year for Facebook” said Chief Product Officer Chris Cox.¬†“We faced tough questions about our role in democracy, our role in discourse, our role in journalism, and our role in well-being . . . We have our best teams internally partnered with the best experts externally to work through each set of the issues”

At the event, Facebook announced a new set of Groups features including the combination of member requests, Group Insights, and other admin tools into a centralized space. Group Announcements let admins pin up to 10 important messages at the top of their Group to keep members on the same page. Admins can personalize their Group with a color theme. And admins can post a specific set of Group rules to keep members in line and discussion civil.

The announcements and rules features should be especially helpful for large Groups that want to allow open contributions from members, but thwart spam by defining exactly what content people can post and in what format. I’ve been using an ad hoc rules section at the top of the 10,000 person event discovery group I started in 2010, and it’s been critical to dampening noise and getting people to keep their notifications on. Formalizing this tool could make organizing easier for other admins.

To build out these features plus other safety and community infrastructure, Facebook says that “by the end of 2018, we will double the number of people working in London on these issues”, specifically the “engineering team for community safety” that Cox says are “The folks that build tools to make it easy to moderate content and proactively take it down”. Facebook had previously said it would double the size of its content review team from 10,000 to 20,000, and hire 1,000 people to work on political ads transparency. These hires could ensure Facebook has enough staff to tackle its problems in a timely manner before problems spread.

Finally, Facebook announced its Facebook Community Leadership Program that will dish out grants and education. The program is open to community builders who’ve made a proven impact, foster a tolerant space for diverse voices, drive offline as well as online connections, and use Facebook’s family of apps in their efforts. Applications to the program including proposals for how to spend the grant money can be submitted here until March 8th.

The five selected community leaders in residence will get up to $1 million for their proposals, plus customized leadership development training during five one-week sessions in residence at Facebook’s offices. The 100 people selected for the community fellowship program will get up to $50,000 for their proposals and participate in four in-person gatherings with other fellows.

Taking a cue from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In female empowerment “circles”, Facebook will organize in-person Community Leadership Circles around the world after assembling three in the U.S. in 2017. Facebook will also add more people to its Groups for Facebook Power Admins that let Group leaders share tips and tricks.

You can watch a replay of the Communities Summit below:

Facebook still often concludes that the best thing for society is more Facebook, as with Groups. Hence the requirement that grant recipients be using Facebook to organize their communities. One of Facebook’s big milestones is it’s striving to increase the number of users in meaningful groups from 100 million to 1 billion.

Recently, though, the company has put a bigger stress on encouraging and measuring “time well spent” instead of just total time on Facebook. That’s mostly taken the form of significant News Feed algorithm changes that reduce public posts, news, and viral videos. Facebook even admitted its first daily active user count loss, a drop of 700,000 in Q4 2017 in the U.S. & Canada region, that in part resulted from these changes that caused an overall 5 percent reduction in time spent on Facebook

By promoting Groups and making them more powerful, Facebook could create a natural place to shift our attention that’s more enriching than passively scrolling through its feed. The question is how far Facebook is willing to go to push well-being at the expense of its bottom line or how its products operate. Investing $10 million in grants and more in hiring is one thing. It’d be another to see Facebook implement material changes like batched notifications, stronger do not disturb controls, or even a timer showing how long people spend on the site per day.

For more on the social network’s impact¬†on people’s health, read our feature piece: “The difference between good and bad Facebooking”