During 2020, the Governance Lab interviewed leaders of 50 Facebook groups and 26 global academic and industry experts for this study of the governance and leadership of Facebook groups. This work was funded by a grant from Facebook and conducted in partnership with Facebook’s Community Partnerships team.

Executive Summary

  • Online groups are significant contemporary organizations that can generate impact, and provide their members with a strong sense of community and belonging, despite not operating in physical space.
  • 1.8 billion people use Facebook Groups every month, and more than half of all the people using Facebook are members of five or more active groups. There are 70 million people active in the past month leading these groups as admins and moderators.
  • This report seeks to open a conversation about the role and impact of online groups and the factors that make some of them successful communities. It draws on interviews with 50 leaders of Facebook Groups in 17 countries and with 26 global experts in online community building, along with a literature review, internal Facebook research, and a parallel YouGov survey of 15,000 Internet users in 15 countries. 
  • A growing number of people around the world are finding meaning and a sense of belonging in online groups. According to the YouGov survey, in 11 out of 15 countries studied, the largest proportion of respondents reported the most important group to which they belong is a primarily online one.
  • The report finds:
    1. People can experience a strong sense of community from membership in such groups despite the lack of physical proximity.
    2. Online groups are a still fluid form of human organization that in many cases attract members and leaders who are marginalized in the physical societies they inhabit, and who use the platform to build new kinds of community they could not form in real space.
    3. Many of these groups have counter-cultural norms and are what political scientists might call “cross-cleavage” communities. These groups cut across traditional social groupings, and bring together people normally divided by geography around a shared trait or interest.
    4. The flexible affordances of online platforms have enabled new kinds of leaders to emerge in these groups with unique skills in moderating often divisive dialogues, sometimes among millions of members. 
    5. The leaders of many of these groups run them as a labor of love; they are neither trained nor paid, the rules that govern their internal operations are often uncodified, and the hosting platform – in this case Facebook – holds significant power over their operations and future.
    6. These groups, some of which have huge memberships, remain emergent and largely unrecognized: they are outside traditional power structures, institutions and forms of governance.
    7. More research is needed to understand whether and how these groups will operate as genuine communities over the long term, especially given the tensions that derive from conducting public life on a private platform such as Facebook, and how such groups and their leaders can be supported to ensure they provide maximum voice, participation and benefit to their members.

First published: February 2021  Ι  SCI Author : Lex Paulson