From moms to college students, the accidental leaders who are bringing us together online

Written by Grace Clapham Published on     4 mins read

The study found that people can experience a strong sense of community, despite the lack of physical proximity and interaction.

Grace Clapham is the director of Community Partnerships for Facebook in the APAC region, based in Singapore. In her role, she supports community leaders using Facebook’s family of apps to grow their communities, whilst also providing access to funding, social networks, and educational programs. 

This piece was originally published on womenlovetech.

Online communities have been around since the beginning of the internet. But in the last year, we have seen them grow tremendously, as the world grappled with COVID-19 and people tried to regain a sense of connection to others that was starting to slip away.

Many of these communities exist in Facebook Groups. More than 1.8 billion people use Facebook Groups every month, and more than half of all users are in five or more groups. A 2020 survey conducted by YouGov found that in 11 of the 15 nations surveyed, the largest proportion of people said the most important group in their lives is primarily online.

We recently sponsored an independent study run by The Governance Lab (The GovLab) at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering. The research looked into the reasons why people were joining online groups, when they operated, and how well, and what effect it had on their lives.

The study found that people can experience a strong sense of community, despite the lack of physical proximity and interaction. These communities cross geographical limitations and other traditional social groupings to bring together people around a shared interest, experience, or cause.

Perhaps the most important finding was on the critical role played by admins and moderators within groups. There are more than 70 million admins and moderators running active Facebook Groups. These are everyday people who start the groups, many without any training, and they run them as a labor of love.

Take for example, Catherine Barrett, a social entrepreneur based in Melbourne, Australia, established a Facebook Group to publicly celebrate acts of what she calls “intersectional kindness,” or kindness for everyone, but especially those who are marginalized or experiencing difficulty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She called her group The Kindness Pandemic; it gained over half a million members in its first two weeks.

The Kindness Pandemic group was established by Dr. Catherine Barrett on 14 March 2020 to improve the lives of people devastated by the Covid19 pandemic. Courtesy of The Kindness Pandemic.

Two of the most common challenges for group admins and leaders is figuring out how they can turn this into a sustainable income given managing a group takes up a lot of time and is mainly voluntary, and how they can manage conflict and encourage meaningful connections.

The GovLab study also found that many group leaders are accidental leaders. They had little idea of how leadership of their group would unfold when they took on the role. While the job is complex and time-consuming, many leaders are also not trained or prepared.

For many community leaders, they never expected their group to grow so quickly and to the size that they are now. More importantly, many also underestimated the importance their community would have on people’s lives. However, we continue to see these leaders step up and begin to develop unique skills to navigate their evolving role.

As the number of coronavirus cases in India rose in March 2020, Bangalore-based self-employed digital marketing professional Mahita Nagaraj realized that many in her city were in high-risk groups for COVID-19 because of their age or pre-existing health conditions, and would need help coping with the upcoming nationwide lockdown. She created HumanKind Global (previously Caremongers India), along with a WhatsApp helpline, to coordinate a volunteer-led effort delivering necessary supplies to anyone in the city who needed help. At one point the admins were adding 2,000 to 3,000 members a day to the group, and the helpline was exploding with 800 to 1,000 calls a day and 2,500 WhatsApp messages.

In the Facebook community group, volunteers share this image to help spread awareness. Photo courtesy of HumanKind Global.

At times, it was difficult to keep up with the group’s pace of growth with Mahita spending up to 22 hours per day coordinating requests during the lockdown. Despite the challenges, HumanKind Global has grown to more than 50,000 members. Answering more than 25,000 requests for help, its volunteers have coordinated blood donations, delivered life-saving medication, and provided people stranded at home with enough food to eat.

Helping develop the next generation of community leaders

Almost no formal academic or vocational training is available to people in online community management. Among a range of support, we provide leaders with educational material through programs such as the Community Accelerator, as well as the new Facebook Certified Community Manager Program to empower community managers to further build, grow, scale, and connect their communities through a set curriculum and exam. These programs impart skills and best practice frameworks that community leaders can adopt to navigate increasingly complex environments as their respective communities grow.

Facebook continues to empower community leaders with a wide range of tools to help admins and moderators to manage, grow, and even monetize their groups. For example, with tools like Admin Assist, group admins can set rules so Facebook can help moderate posts in the group. It is also now easier for community leaders and admins to organize content by topic with hashtags, or by pinning a topic to the top of the group for everyone to see.

In the ten years since we launched groups on Facebook we have been inspired how online communities cut across traditional social groupings, and bring together people normally divided by geography around a shared trait or interest. We will continue to support leaders who are building community and making a positive impact in the world today.


Grace Clapham

Grace Clapham is the director of Community Partnerships for Facebook in the APAC region, based in Singapore.


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