At Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California, a thicket of visitors fills a small space that has inspirational signs (“Only in the darkness can you see the stars”) on the walls and a wood-framed Facebook logo suspended from the ceiling. Standing a few feet away, I hear the group emit a little gasp of shared excitement. That’s my first indication that Mark Zuckerberg has entered the room.
The visitors–there are 19 of them–have come to Facebook as part of the company’s acknowledgment of its thirteenth anniversary, which it’s marking on Saturday, February 4. Facebook calls its annual celebration “Friends Day” and is commemorating it by offering members ready-made (but editable) videos featuring photos of their friends, plus some new Messenger GIFs with friendship themes.
Most of the participants present at the event at Facebook headquarters are here to talk about something that can’t be conveyed in GIF form: the positive, sometimes life-changing things that quietly happen in Facebook groups. Among the attendees are representatives of the Tessara Collective, a group where women of color discuss mental illness; the Dallas Amputee Coalition, a support group for those who have lost limbs; Keep Austin Fishing!, for fishing enthusiasts of all levels of expertise; and GirlsLOVETravel, an international club for women with 210,000 members. These Facebook members and others get to meet Zuckerberg, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and VP social good Naomi Gleit, who has been with the company for eleven and a half of its thirteen years.
From Zuckerberg and Sandberg to the attendees, everybody at the event sees Facebook as a powerful force for good based on personal experience. But it’s not tough to understand why the company would be moved to remind the rest of the world about its capacity to bring people together in inspiring ways.
Facebook’s 1.8 billion monthly active users are proof that the service appeals to as wide a swath of humanity as anything ever created by a Silicon Valley company. Yet for most of its history, much of the news coverage about its impact on the world has accentuated the negative. That has never have been more true than in recent months, as Facebook reporting and punditry has centered on topics such as whether the fake news stories that people shared on the service affected the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, and the degree of the company’s responsibility for preventing itself from being a conduit for hoaxes.
At the event, much of the discussion with Sandberg involves participants telling stories about Facebook’s ability to cultivate conversations with friends and kindred spirits that can help people get through difficult times–beginning with Sandberg’s own comments about her husband’s sudden death in 2015. “I had been told what happened on Facebook when you face loss and adversity,” she says. “But I never understood until it was me.”
As others share their experiences, A’Driane Nieves, who runs the Tessara Collective along with Dior Vargas, says that the group came into being when she was suffering from postpartum depression, Googled around, and couldn’t find much information aimed at women of color. “I wanted to create a space where we could just exist, commiserate, and share resources,” she explains. “It’s probably my favorite corner on the internet.” Like a lot of Facebook groups on sensitive subjects, hers usually goes out of its way not to call attention to itself: In fact, it uses Facebook’s “secret” setting, which means that you can only discover it by being invited by someone who already belongs.
After the session with Sandberg, Zuckerberg arrives, mingles, poses for photos, and the declares that groups such as those operated by some of the event’s participants are not just an important part of Facebook but core to its future. “We’ve spent the last decade or more really focusing on connecting friends and family,” he says. “Going forward, one of the next things that we really need to focus on is groups and communities.”
“Your stories show we’re not starting from zero on this,” he adds. “There’s a lot of great work that’s been done. More than a billion people around the world use groups and form communities on Facebook. But there’s just so much more that needs to get done.”
The discussion segues from emotional personal tales to the need for additional Facebook capabilities designed with groups in mind. Attendees press Zuckerberg to add features such as a videoconferencing service designed for groups and the ability to issue tickets for events. He cheerfully notes that group managers often have to work around Facebook’s limitations: “A lot of you are doing what we would call hacking around–in a good way.”
At the end of the event, Zuckerberg reminds the attendees of his belief that VR will become an increasingly major part of how people socialize with each other online. In the interest of helping them create more immersive content, he says, attendees will leave with their own 360-degreee Ricoh Theta cameras. The cameras are distributed in black Facebook shopping bags to the participants, who buzz with excitement once again. And then Zuckerberg is gone.
As Gleit wraps up the discussion, she says that Zuckerberg–and Facebook as a whole–take the attendees’ input seriously. And that, she says, means that their feature requests amount to a to-do list: “I have the feeling he’s going to send a really long email to us at the end of the day telling us all the things we need to build.”