Monday, October 1, 2012

Facebook Group Management

I am an administrator and member of several Facebook (FB) groups, and just as laying down some policies for managing a blog is helpful to both writers and readers, it seems that solid suggestions for the administration and membership of Facebook groups is similarly needed. My intention is simply that my personal experiences and individual philosophy might be of good use to others; take what you like and leave the rest. Anyone who has been on Facebook for enough time knows that it is a double-edged sword. It's great to be able to find old friends as well as keep in contact with those who may be far away. It can be a tool for any type of outreach, from evangelization to promoting a business. One can find useful information and enjoy a forum for self-expression and the exchange of opinions. Then there is the flip side.

Facebook is, by definition, a social network. And as with any social group, the potential exists for drama, chaos, darkness, and confusion. How do we navigate this road? Sometimes the negativity can be enough to drive a person to throw up her hands and just get the bloody hell off the crazy highway. But then you may miss out on the fun and positive opportunities that the social network affords. I think it is first of all important to differentiate between one's personal space, called the "wall", and a group forum.

Your wall is like a bulletin board in your own home. You can post pictures, personal information, website links, and any type of comment you see fit. People often consider FB to be a specifically public forum, when in fact it has a stronger element of privacy. You can friend or unfriend whoever you want, you can restrict what can be seen or posted to your wall using a variety of settings, and you are free to add or delete your wall content exclusively at your own discretion. No one should feel that he has the "right" to post whatever he wants to the wall of another person and expect that it will remain on display.

A Facebook group, on the other hand, is more like a community bulletin board. An individual may start a group, but the dynamics are entirely different from a singular person's wall. I have found that regardless of one's initial intentions in beginning a group, there will be varying interpretations of what content does or does not belong in the group. Some groups I belong to have been drama free, and I have never felt the need to delete a comment as the administrator. Other groups in which I participate have been filled with everything from minor drama and disagreements to hostility and nearly warlike behavior. Regardless of who started the group, it becomes to an extent community property, and nobody wants to feel compelled to post a "snark alert". Here are some guidelines I have determined which can alleviate much unnecessary confusion:

1. Name your group to reflect your intentions as accurately as possible. You may think that a name such as "Growing Up in Farmtown" is self-explanatory, but believe me, it is not. Using this as an example, we can first of all consider that there may be more than one Farmtown in the USA, so you will want to designate the state (or country) to  which you are referring. And right away there is a problem with the phrase "growing up". Do you mean to point to those who grew up in Farmtown in the past alone, or are you including those currently growing up in Farmtown? The name of your group will not be able to say it all. This leads to the next point.

2. Articulate the description of your group and its purpose as specifically and concisely as possible. A group with a very vague description, or worse, none at all, will open you up to chaos. For example, the "Growing Up in Farmtown" group description might say, "When I was growing up in Farmtown I liked the ice cream parlor." Okay, fine, but that is not a proper delineation of one's purpose. That would more likely be the type of comment a member might leave, and then others would join in with places they fondly recall. A better description would be, "A place to connect with friends from Farmtown, Ohio, both old and new, and to share memories and events of local interest". You might also request the posting of pictures, stories, ads for local businesses, current events, and cultural activities in the area, both past and present. Custom design your description to best reflect the desired personality and content of the group.

3. Understand that there will be varying opinions on what content is appropriate to the group, despite the name and description, so set policies accordingly. For example, you may create a group for Christian Polo Players. You may not, however, anticipate members that are, say, Jehovah's Witnesses, who may consider themselves to be Christian, while you do not. You may want to create a policy of interviewing potential members before adding them to the group, to avoid spam and screen more specifically who you want your members to be.

4. Avoid unnecessary censorship. The nature of your group and its dynamics will depend upon many factors, such as the size of the group and the education, socio-economic background, ethnicity, religion, age, etc... of its members. You should expect conflicting opinions and ideas about what is appropriate to share. As long as comments are generally relevant to the group and are polite and respectful, then allow conversations to flow as they will. It is fine for an administrator to politely interject a concern or to re-establish his intentions for the group. That is where having a solid description reference is vital.

5. As a group member or administrator, respect diversity and organic growth. For example, those who grew up in Farmtown in the 60s most likely had a much different experience than those growing up in the 90s. Reflecting on the past will undoubtedly invite comparisons to the present. Some people will have only rosy memories to share, while others will want to complain. National politics may not be relevant at all, while local politics certainly might. Discretion should definitely be used regarding topic choices. But if a woman just opened a bakery in Farmtown, for example, and she wants to invite the community, it would be rude for another member to insert that they only want to hear about the "good old days". The more the administrators stay neutral and objective, the better for a democratic, welcoming, inclusive group, one where members feel safe to visit and be themselves.

6. Always avoid personal attacks. You may want to vent about your next door neighbor's annoying dog, but doing so by naming names and calling him a no-good-so-and-so would not be appropriate in the Farmtown group or any group. On the other hand, posting the facts about local police corruption might be, as it could affect the community as a whole. Likewise, the Christian Polo Players should not condemn a particular church's teachings or call one of their players a dirty cheater, but lively discussions about theology should be expected to occur. If you do find that a comment must be removed, have the courtesy to notify that member before doing so, and explain your reasons. And better yet, first allow him the opportunity to defend his choice as relevant and appropriate.

7. Update your group's name, policies, and description as needed. Understand that the group will evolve and change over time. If it goes in a direction quite unlike your original intentions, re-evaluate what you want the group to be and and make the pertinent alterations. Any social group is always a work in progress.

Finally, keep in mind always that there are real, living human beings communicating online. There is no reason that peace and goodwill should not be extended to all. Give the commenter the benefit of the doubt. It is impossible to get a completely accurate feeling of the intentions of someone whose voice you cannot hear and whose facial expressions and body language you cannot see. Err on the side of charity. Isn't there enough bloodshed in the world? If you must fight, fight the good fight, and keep it clean!

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