How London Cabbies Use Facebook To Share "The Knowledge"

Facebook Groups, one of the social networking site's earliest features, have morphed into a powerful tool for micro-niches of people to connect and help one another.

Patric McGuinness is the first to admit that his past is checkered. His childhood was marred by an abusive father. He got involved with gangs, with drugs. He spent 15 years in prison. He hurt a lot of people. But a little over a decade ago, McGuinness decided to turn his life around, getting sober and helping others to begin to do so. And last year, he told a friend he was thinking of trying to become a London taxi driver—which is when his friend recommended that McGuinness join a 1,000-member Facebook Group called “The Taxi Knowledge of London.”

Facebook Groups are one of the social network’s oldest features, predating even News Feed or photo albums. Yet early users tended to use Facebook Groups more as “bumper stickers,” in the words of Facebook Groups Project Manager Jimmy Chen. They’d start groups with wacky names like “I Enjoy Stepping On Crunchy Leaves” or “It Blew My Mind The First Time I Learned The Disney Logo Was A D”—the sorts of little aperçus that would later find a more fitting home on Twitter. In 2010, though, Facebook revamped Groups substantially, making them a “more practical space for communication.”

Patric McGuinness

In McGuinness’s case, “The Taxi Knowledge of London” became a community that ushered him into the daunting world of London black-cab apprenticeship. Would-be cab drivers in London must spend three years learning “The Knowledge”—essentially becoming a living GPS system of everything within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross Station. You need to know the best way to get from any one point to any other; you have to know the major landmarks; you need to be able to out-Google-Maps Google Maps. It’s a spatial memorization undertaking so mammoth that it's known to substantially change black cab drivers’ brains.

If that weren’t daunting enough, McGuinness wasn’t even sure if he’d be allowed to apply, due to that checkered past. So before McGuinness was even pre-certified to begin studying The Knowledge, the Facebook community served as a welcome mat and sounding board for his anxieties.

After a period of a few months, McGuinness was officially able to begin studying to become a taxi driver—and that was when the group really began to be useful. He was soon was confronted with all kinds of questions. What was a good kind of motorbike to get, in order to learn The Knowledge? When would the landmark Savoy Hotel reopen? “Can you do The Knowledge in a car, and how much money do you earn, and can I lease one, or do I buy it, and is there insurance? There’s a whole heap of questions,” he says. And the Group always had an answer—sometimes, 30 of them, one piled on top of another.

Once the newbie to the group, McGuinness is now able to share knowledge of his own. Since he shares his story as a youthful criminal offender openly on the page, others have approached him asking how the application process has been for him. “I’ve got messages: ‘How did you get past this? What would you advise?’ They would never have had access to firsthand information had they not been on this Facebook page with me.”

The group is also helpful for licensed drivers, who collectively pool their smarts to stay ahead of increasingly sophisticated mapping software from the likes of Google. McGuinness cites a London street that Google still has marked as one-way, even though it changed recently to a two-way street. The Facebook Group helps those thousand connected cabbies disseminate that knowledge more quickly.

Facebook’s Chen points to The Knowledge Group one of a wide array of use cases that Facebook users increasingly avail themselves of. He points to other surprising groups, including one where Australian four-wheel-drive off-roading enthusiasts share tips (and real-time pleas for help when they get stuck in the mud). Recently, Facebook Groups helped reunite participants in the 1975 evacuation of Vietnam War orphans known as “Operation Babylift.” Chen says that users should expect to see the Facebook Groups experience improve and become more intuitive on mobile devices—which is how people increasingly use Facebook all over the world.

That will surely help McGuinness as he continues to learn The Knowledge on the streets of London over the next few years. And he's looking forward to what he hopes will be an endpoint that combines his interests and helps him turn over a new leaf. Most recently a counselor for at-risk youth, McGuinness (who still volunteers with substance abusers), says he'd like for his cab to someday be something like a psychotherapy office on wheels for his fares. “I like people,” he says. “I just want to have the ability to deliver advice and guidance on the journey while they’re in my cab.”