When Emily Farris went online for parenting advice, all she got was anti-vaxxer hogwash or mom shaming. So she created a new parenting group on Facebook, and no one could join without an invitation. “I wanted a place where smart moms, working moms, moms who ‘get it’ could ask important questions, drop an F-bomb, and not have to wade through all of the fluff in other mom groups,” says Farris, a freelance writer based in Missouri.
She built what’s called a secret Facebook group, a choice many people are making amid the partisan rancor of the 2016 election and its aftermath. This flight behind figurative closed doors is at odds with the internet’s promise of open dialogue, but it is also a reaction to what people like Farris increasingly perceive as the toxicity of that openness.
It is not a choice without risk. The first rule of secret Facebook groups is you do not talk about secret Facebook groups. The second rule of secret Facebook groups is that someone, inevitably, always talks about secret Facebook groups. And much like fight clubs, these groups are based on radical trust–where people of like mind can express their true selves–and have a tendency to slip into solipsism. Still, despite the risks to privacy and the devolution into echo chambers, private Facebook groups may provide an important refuge: places where new ideas can germinate while shielded from the toxicity of the open internet.
Got an interest? You too could start your own closed group. But odds are, one already exists that suits your needs: fetish, hobby, professional and medical groups, and groups for people who love a certain TV show. Political groups run from liberal to conservative, conspiracy theorist to pragmatist. Some focus on taking action, others on kvetching, still others on exchanging advice. Facebook won’t divulge exact numbers but says one billion people actively use Groups each day–a vast majority of its daily active users. A company spokesman points to the now famous pro-Hillary Pantsuit Nation as an example of the popularity of closed and (not-so) secret groups (nearly 3.9 million members). Some, though closed, are searchable. Still others are secret. The only way to find them is to be invited by someone already in the group.
What they have in common is a desire among their members to be with like-minded folks in a place no outsider can penetrate. “It’s lonely always fighting with people. You end up censoring a lot of your ideas,” says Judith Donath, author of The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online and an expert in how people form communities on the internet. These closed environments where everyone must use their real names are the opposite of Twitter, which in 2016 began to feel mainly like a haven for often-anonymous trolls.
Twitter 2012 Vs Twitter 2016 pic.twitter.com/xpuvcSA00O
— memes daily (@WindowsXPmemes) December 18, 2016
During his farewell address last week, soon-to-be ex-President Obama suggested that if people are so sick of fighting with strangers online maybe they should try talking to them in real life. But as Americans’ sense of social cohesion has moved from the church pews and bowling clubs to Facebook and Twitter, the likelihood of people going offline on a grand scale is small. Instead, increasingly, when people are sick of fighting with people online, they find a place online where they can agree with people instead. The easiest place to go is Facebook, because 1.7 billion people are already there.
A Question of Trust
In one secret Facebook group I was added to right before the election, high-profile people sound off on politics in ways that could possibly get them fired–or at least alienate their friends–if their unguarded sentiments went public. These people come from the worlds of academia, media, politics, and prominent law firms. When they post, they are depending on a social contract that any member of the group could violate at any moment–like, say, a journalist. I would have no ethical obligation as a journalist to respect the “secret” nature of this group if someone said something newsworthy there–these groups aren’t off the record. So far no one has; the chatter is passionate and silly and mostly irrelevant. In my estimation of this particular group, there is no public interest in airing their particular concerns, while the risk to them is clear. But their blind trust in me is misguided. If they were to reveal something the public should know, I would publish it here.
At the same time, this radical trust is part of the appeal of these groups. “There is something very pleasant about becoming a member of a group and developing relationships that have increasing amounts of trust,” says Donath. But this means membership itself is a risk. Your privacy could be breached at any moment.
That’s what many members feel happened with Pantsuit Nation, whose creator Libby Chamberlain is currently facing backlash after announcing she had signed a book deal about the now-not-so-secret group, a book that would include posts from members who agreed. The press had already outed her group, but many viewed her monetary gain as a betrayal. (She did not respond to questions.)
But a betrayal of group privacy need not even be deliberate. Consider “social leakage,” where someone reads something in a secret group and then repeats it elsewhere, forgetting the context in which she first heard it, thus outing a group member unwittingly. More importantly, says Wendy Seltzer, an attorney with the World Wide Web consortium who has worked with such privacy juggernauts as Tor and is the founder of the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the privacy of these forums is only as good as the company’s commitment to keeping them private–and its ability to back that commitment.
As one woman in California who’s in seven secret Facebook groups puts it: “I like that they’re ‘private’ but of course I assume everything on Facebook will become public.” But she’s the exception. For the most part, people don’t think about the fact that Facebook itself is an omniscient elephant in the otherwise-private room. If people wanted more privacy they could opt to use fully encrypted but far-less convenient services like Signal or even Facebook-owned and fully encrypted WhatsApp.
Echo, Echo, Echooooooooooooooo
Siloing based on ideology fuels culture wars. Some have said its ruining our democracy, and certain secret Facebook groups are definitely echo chambers. In response, a movement has sprung up to burst the filter bubbles.
For instance, I’d like to tell you about another group someone added me to, which has become an echo-chamber run wild. The group was formed by pro-Hillary Democrats during the primaries as a safe place to vent about their frustrations with Bernie Sanders. At the time, Sanders was so popular and “Bernie Bros” so vocal that these Clinton supporters did not feel comfortable voicing their concerns about him on Twitter.
But when Clinton won the election, the group didn’t disband. Each day people had new complaints about Sanders. After the election, when Trump won and one could argue that Democrats trying to organize a response would be wise to focus on him, the group stayed on Sanders. The people in the group get each other fired up, egg each other on to disown friends who support Sanders’ initiatives in congress, and largely ignore posts that try to move the conversation away from this now tangential political figure. After months of in-talking, it’s fed upon its baser instincts without any outside perspective to offer relief, until the place feels like a hermetically sealed paranoia bunker apart from reality.
Still, that risk of solipsism belies the benefits that private conversation can have more broadly. “This focus on echo chambers underplays the degree to which we need similarity of ideas in order to advance ideas,” says technologist David Weinberger, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, who studies how technology affects ideas.
“There is a positive side to private spaces. Our ideas, our feelings, our values, develop primarily in the company of people who we trust, where we can speak frankly, where we don’t have to make explicit our assumptions and our values, where we have the freedom to talk in small and big ways about things that really matter.”
Weinberger argues that’s what allows for iteration, and ultimately, constructive action. “Your ideas advance by talking to people who you differ with just a little bit,” Weinberger says. If you disagree too much–like often happens on Twitter–you have to explain the assumptions behind every one of your ideas, and you aren’t able to move forward to actually generate constructive conversation.
“But you want a diversity of environments to think and talk in,” Donath says. If you’re in lots of private Facebook groups, counterbalance them with public forums like Twitter. Because if you are just in insular, small groups, she says, “you don’t get new information in or out.” That is, until someone blabs or gets a book deal.