Why Facebook is abandoning individuals in favour of communities

Here is a bold claim.  In social media you can’t make money out of individuals, only communities.

Here’s why.  In the good old days, the way you made money out of media was by being a platform that allowed commercially sponsored messages to be placed in front of lots of individuals. For this to work well, the message had to be be very effective (which is why advertising creative directors made lots of money) and the media had to attract lots of individuals. The more individuals a platfrom could attract, the more money it could charge for its real estate.

This model doesn’t really work in social media, because, as we are slowly starting to realise, platforms such as Facebook are not really media platforms. Facebook can more easily be understood as a tool or an infrastructure. Despite what the film says, it is not a social network, it facilitates social networking. There may be huge numbers of people using the infrastructure – but you can’t reach ‘all of Facebook’ in the same way as you could reach ‘all the readers / viewers’. In reality, Facebook is an eco-system comprised of a vast number of tiny interactions bewteen very small groups of people. This creates a problem, because the commercial opportunity within these types of interaction is highly restricted. In the same way that no-one would want a commercial message inserted into a phone call, people don’t see a role for commercial intervention or interuption in the individual, small scale, relationships people have on Facebook.

This is a big problem for Facebook, because its current very high valuation is based, in large part, its status as a platfrom that can access millions of people. It has the millions of people, but it cannot provide the access in a way which makes commercial sense and complements the way in which people use the infrastructure. It can only sell itself as an advertising platform, but it is slowly realising that the value of an individual person within Facebook is an awful lot less than the value of an individual reader or viewer. Facebook is coming face-to-face with one of the fundamental rules of commercialising social media: in social media, you can’t make money out of individuals, only communities.

Essentially, there are very few chinks in the armour within individual interactions in social media that allow a credible intervention by an institution or commercial organisation. That is not to say that you should abandon the individual. Listening to individuals and their conversations, and responding where necessary is still a hugely valuable exercise. It is just that 99.99 per cent of all social media activity is un-receiptive to commercial intervention and thus it is just not scalable as a way of reaching lots of people.

However, this starts to change when you stop focusing on the individual and start to focus on the communities that individuals might form (focusing on behaviours, not on platforms or tools). Community is undoubtedly the ‘Next Big Thing’ in social media. The community is the new individual and the community probably represents the only sensible entry or engagement point for most institutions. In working out how to extract commercial value from community it is important to recognise one of the other fundamental rules – which is that individuals will be reluctant to allow themselves to be managed within communities controlled by institutions, rather they will prefer to form communities to manage their relationships with institutions. As people become more familiar with the tools of social media, they will work out how easy it is to create communities that help them ‘do stuff’.

Facebook understands this – which is why it has recently made changes to Facebook Groups and Facebook Pages which are designed to make it clear that Pages are where corporate organisations can have their Facebook outpost but that Groups are for individuals. Facebook is going flat out to encourage its users to aggregate themselves into small communities (Facebook Group functionality starts to de-grade once the Group exceeds 250 members), because it knows that its user base becomes commercially much more valuable as a large number of small communities than as an even larger number of individuals. The problem, of course, is that there are many other tools individuals can use to create communities – many of which are better than Facebook and thus Facebook is in a race a aginst time to try and establish the behaviour of community formation within Facebook in order to try and steal a march on the competition.

This is consistent with Clay Shirky’s assertion that revolutions don’t occur when societies adopt new tools, but when they adopt new behaviours. It is also consistent with Facebook’s objective of being the single tool you use to “do” all your social media, rather than being an application you can use to integrate tools produced by others.


  1. Antonio Gonzalez

    Hi Richard,
    Great post as usual, but I have a question.
    How do you define “community”?
    What does “community” mean in social media?


  2. Jeremy Epstein

    One of the (few) things that I don’t like about my iPad is the fact that I tend to read blogs on it, but don’t “engage” as much in terms of comments.

    All of that is to say that I’ve been reading your posts over these past few months, but haven’t had a chance to personally tell you that I’ve enjoyed them.

    Of course, now that it is somewhat self-promoting (shame on me), I’ve decided to comment.

    Feel free to call me out on that one, but hoping our past interactions are credibility enough to earn your attention.

    Which is, EXACTLY, the point, I believe, of what Facebook is doing, of what you blogged about, and my recent post (part 1 of promotion) called “Community First.”

    What I argue there is that, because of the changing paradigm of marketing from “let’s get the word out” (implying that WE must do it) to “let’s have the word spread” (implying that OTHERS who are passionate and motivated will do it for us, more efficiently and effectively), that the single most important initial effort on the part of the marketer is to build the community first…BEFORE you need it.

    What I think you’ve latched onto in the post and what FB is enabling is that Community (which I define as a group of people who care-to whatever degree, from 1 to 1 million-about what you are doing) is one of the smartest asset building activities in which you can engage.

    It’s such a powerful asset that, eventually, I suspect, companies will list it on their balance sheets as an asset. I’m just glad that that I’m not taxed on mind.

    (As a side note, I’d like to invent a Passion-o-meter to assess who cares more, but that comes later.)

    Now, Community doesn’t happen overnight and it certainly doesn’t happen in-authentically which, I think, will be the downfall of most organizations. You may have a great tool, but if you don’t have the genuine concern for your community AS PEOPLE, then it just won’t matter.

    Now, promotion #2 is my newest eBook called “10 Ways to Cultivate Your Community: How to Build Genuine Fans for the Long-Term” (http://bit.ly/growfanspdf )

    This is a How-To Manual to grow that passion and interest for your idea, your movement SO THAT when you do have something you wish to share, you have an actual asset of people who do really care and will help you evangelize it.

    Ok, promotion over.

    All of this is to say that I think your end analysis is correct and I think that Facebook sees this as well.

    Society has adopted a new behavior of expecting companies/orgs to actually care about them. They will reward those that do and ignore (worse than punishing in an attention economy!) those that don’t.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. richardstacy


    Happy for the self-promotion – what else are blog comments for?

    The most important thing to define (as per Antonio’s comment) is “what is community?” You have defined it as a group of people who care-to whatever degree, from 1 to 1 million-about what you are doing. I am not sure this definition is quite right. A functioning community only cares about what IT is doing not what YOU are doing. I think what many brands are going to have to come to terms with, especially as they seek to construct communities, is that almost no-one actually cares at all about what THEY are doing. This is why the community opportunity with brands lies much more in creating some form of relationship with the communities people create for themselves, rather than creating brand communities. What I didn’t say in the post (but often say to companies) is that, in the future, people are going to form communities to manage their relationships with institutions (brands) rather than allow themselves to be managed within communities controlled by institutions.

    This will come as a great shock to the marketers in Coke, Pepsi, P&G et al because they have been brought up in an environment where what THEY do is paramount – because what they do is control huge marketing budgets, have agencies at their beck-and-call and attract the top talent. What THEY are about to discover in the coming years is that as far as consumers are concerned Coke and Pepsi are simply almost identically flavoured soft-drinks and that consumers’ real level of passion or interest in them is tiny, compared to the things that really attract their passions (family, friendship etc) but which don’t have an advertising budget.

    In your terms about cultivating community – I think the best (possibly only) way to cultivate your community is by nurturing the relevant communities of your consumers. These communities are far more likely to be category or need focused, than they are brand focused.

  4. Jeremy Epstein

    Just like you left something out of your post, I left something out of my comment…and you picked up on it.

    When I coach people on communities, the question I have them ask themselves before they get started is “what’s the IDEA behind your community?”

    People don’t care about Coke or Windows Server or Ford Escort, per se, they care about the idea that it represents. A company can build, maintain, and engage in community as long as it is around the idea, not around the product. The idea is eternal, the product isn’t.

    What’s more, “community” because it centers around an idea, doesn’t necessarily happen in one place. These pre-existing communities you’ve identified can be a part of the eco-system, no doubt, and brands can be valuable contributors to it if they recognize that they are a contributor and they realize what their obligation to the community is.

    I couldn’t agree with you more re: passion. I often wish for a tool called a “passion-o-meter” to help companies assess the level of passion that people have for them, which employees have for their cause, and conversely, a consumer could use you to detect if a company REALLY cares about what it says it does (witness all of the ‘green’ marketing now) or if they are just faking it.

  5. cubicspace

    well.. tell that to ning…and its failure to outdo facebook.
    communities need cultivators of the “other”…

    facebook serves up “cultivation of ones self”…

    ego is free time… others require paid time.

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