September 27, 2023

The Eroding Trust in Big Social and the Rise of Small, Connected Communities

By David D.

Over the past few years, trust in big social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter has been rapidly declining. Repeated privacy violations, the spread of misinformation, polarizing algorithms, and concerns over data collection and use have caused many users to lose faith in these massive networks. With trust at an all-time low, people are seeking out alternative options for building and participating in online communities.

Smaller, self-governed communities that foster real connections between members are becoming increasingly appealing. But is it still viable to try growing communities on Facebook and Twitter, or is it better to build them from scratch on independently hosted platforms? In this post, I’ll explore the impacts of declining trust in big social on community management, and weigh the pros and cons of using existing networks versus fresh starts.

Trust is the Foundation of any Vibrant Community

At its core, community is built on trust – trust between members, and trust that the platform itself will protect users’ wellbeing, privacy, and ability to connect authentically. Repeated incidents have shown Facebook and Twitter cannot always be relied on to safeguard these things.

Privacy breaches like Cambridge Analytica exposed just how much user data the platforms collect and what it can be used for without consent. Algorithms aimed at engagement over truth spread misinformation at alarming rates during the 2016 election and COVID-19 pandemic. Platforms were slow to change policies and take meaningful action.

Members no longer feel confident these networks have their best interests at heart. They question if connecting on Facebook will truly remain private, or if an algorithm might amplify something polarizing. Without trust, genuine dialogue and cooperation within groups cannot thrive. Members will be less willing to openly share, engage, or build meaningful rapport.

Communities Embedded in the Platform

Another challenge for community managers is how ownership and control are dispersed across platforms like Facebook. Groups, pages, and profiles exist within the larger network – they don’t have independent infrastructure. Managers have limited customization options and must adhere to the platform’s policies and feature set.

If a platform makes unpopular policy changes, introduces intrusive monetization features, or suffers an outage, it impacts all embedded communities. Managers have no recourse other than moving platforms or rebuilding elsewhere from scratch. And it can be nearly impossible to transition an established community smoothly, as members may not follow to a new location.

Building Independence and Autonomy

Faced with these challenges, many community managers and members are seeking true independence and self-governance that hosted platforms provide. By building communities from the ground up on a self-owned site or dedicated service, full control and long-term viability are possible. Managers set their own policies, customize features to needs, and avoid overbearing algorithms or unexpected policies changes.

Technologies like Discourse, Vanilla Forums, and MemberPress offer all the basic community building tools – profiles, groups, messaging, file storage – while protecting privacy and decentralizing power. Self-hosting on a WordPress site or paid web host gives complete autonomy over look, feel and future direction.

And by not relying on any single platform, communities avoid risks of censorship, bans or outages impacting their existence. They remain fully member-focused with no middleman taking a cut of user data or attention for ads.

Challenges of Going Independent

Of course, complete independence also presents new challenges that must be addressed and overcome. The initial investment of money, time and tech skills to set up custom infrastructure can be daunting.

Ongoing hosting/server costs, software licensing fees, security updates and feature development require ongoing expenses versus relying on a free platform. Promoting and growing a standalone site without built-in network effects also demands more creative digital marketing strategies.

Members must make the effort to find and migrate to the new location rather than remaining on the comfortable big networks they’re used to. Momentum and size can be lost in this transition unless managed carefully through phased rollout plans.

Hybrid Strategies that Capture Benefits of Both

As such, for many managers a hybrid strategy makes the most sense – seed initial growth on Facebook but focus on building independent ownership infrastructure in parallel. Community content like discussions are hosted on the standalone site, while cross-promoting announcements maintain a Facebook presence until autonomous momentum takes over.

Some keep Facebook groups public as a discovery tool directing new members to the member-controlled site immediately upon joining. Others transition over time by gradually tightening Facebook group privacy until it’s invitation-only, retaining only the most engaged members on the indigenous platform.

Emerging technology like Community and Discourse also enable embedding discussion forums or groups directly into independently owned websites, capturing network benefits within a self-governing structure. With creative solutions, managers can dip their toes in both worlds.

Ultimately with trust in big platforms declining, the healthiest communities will be built upon principles of self-determination, transparency and putting members’ needs first – whether fully independent or through hybrid models leaning into independence over time. Though challenging, full control aligns with restoring faith in online spaces and fostering the type of connectedness people truly desire.

David D.
David D.

Building Online Communities since 1998 | Full Stack Community Professional | Host of Community Live