Nature Is Healing: Young People Are Returning to Facebook

Nature Is Healing: Young People Are Returning to Facebook

Facebook is for old people. Everybody knows that! Usage plummeted in 2019, most sharply among Gen-Z and millennials. While Facebook reported growth by some measures, evidence of everyday scrolling — "likes, shares and posts" — dropped by almost 20%. In 2018, only half of teens said they were using Facebook, despite 45% reporting being "online almost constantly." While 69% of adults overall used Facebook last year, people ages 30-49 on the platform outnumbered those between 18-24. Boomers are close behind. Profit margins were decreasing even before the TikTok craze hit.

At least, this was Facebook's landscape two months ago. Coronavirus has carved a fork in the website's seemingly clear path towards boomer chatroom status. Since quarantine began, has seen a 27% increase in average daily traffic (in comparison, YouTube and Netflix only saw around 15% boosts). Use of Messaging and Lives are up by more than 50% in the hardest-hit countries, according to a company blog post from March, with usage up 70% in Italy. "The usage growth from Covid-19 is unprecedented across the industry, and we are experiencing new records in usage almost every day," wrote Alex Schultz and Jay Parikh, two Facebook VPs in the post. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said later, in an April interview: "We're just trying to keep the lights on." The blog post assures us Facebook's not profiting off the crisis: ad revenue is down, as for everyone else.

Every social platform has seen a user increase during lockdown, especially those with live streaming and video messaging features. But unlike Instagram and Twitter, Facebook needed the boost. The site loosened its grip on pop culture and viral media around the time Donald Trump was elected president and Post Aesthetics crashed. Our feeds grew sparser and and notifications fewer as meme creators and celebrities migrated to other platforms. Then the site was besieged by a series of disturbing data, privacy and hate speech scandals, from Cambridge Analytica (which lead to 2018's #DeleteFacebook campaign) to the site's role in platforming fake news that shaped the US election, to its use of a conservative PR firm to spread questionably anti-Semitic rumors that George Soros was funding the protests. (Instagram is notably owned by Facebook but hasn't suffered the same hits to its image.)

Not only is Facebook is boring — it has also been thoroughly cancelled. So why are we back, exactly?

Karen, a 25-year-old who was laid off a few weeks into the quarantine, reactivated her profile to join job groups like Binders (a women freelancer's forum) and hunt for direct cash relief. It made sense to go to Facebook. Under coronavirus, Instagram and Twitter are for spiraling, mask pics and stressful news headlines. With its emphasis on longform text over photos, user-friendly direct messaging and niche community-driven "groups," Facebook has meanwhile become a one-stop resources hub for the pandemic and ensuing recession. According to data provided to PAPER, 4.5 million people worldwide have joined COVID-19 related Facebook groups. Mutual aid groups, where neighbors can request or offer childcare, groceries, medicine, PPE, delivery services, translation help or simply rent money have sprung up for nearly every state and city. In New York City, the epicenter of the virus, there's one for nearly every neighborhood in all five boroughs. Beyond tracking down jobs and cash, pandemic sufferers can find Facebook groups dedicated to everything from filing for unemployment (which around 30 million Americans did in April alone) and cashing federal stimulus checks, to parents educating children at home, brides affected by coronavirus, hairdressers out of work, and medical workers trying to locate RVs where they can quarantine from their families. There are buy and sell marketplaces for masks, hand sanitizer and plastic gloves. "It truly is this fully public message board," says Karen, calling Facebook "the new LinkedIn."

Put simply, Facebook has what the other social media girls don't: a forum feature. "Facebook is the only platform with a good design [where] it's easy to organize and communicate with groups of people at one time," says Mike Desposito, 31, who started the Facebook HELP US - NYS Unemployment Issues in March as a helpline for the millions going through the bureaucratic nightmare of applying for unemployment in New York state. "Instagram et al are great for promotions and photos, but crap if you're trying to ask and answer questions," adds Alicia, a 46-year-old organizer of the group Bushwick Mutual Aid, emphasizing the ease of distributing materials to turn group members into additional organizers. "Facebook allows for actual conversations among large numbers of people."

Pandemic resources on Facebook aren't primarily being created and used by young people (Facebook didn't provide demographic data about traffic and usership increases upon request), but given layoffs are disproportionately affecting millennials and Gen-Z, they're certainly among those seeking out groups like HELP US. "We see many people saying this is the first time they've created a Facebook, or that they hadn't been on their old Facebook accounts in years," Desposito says, estimating HELP US's age range is from 25 to 55. Alicia, who approves all membership requests to avoid trolls, says she's seeing the same thing on Bushwick Mutual Aid: "Some say they joined precisely to join our group. Others said they were back on FB for the first time to connect regarding COVID-19."

Meanwhile Natasha Frid, 24, who recently wrote about her fraught experiences of applying for unemployment for The Cut, was a frequent Facebook user pre-corona. But for a long time now, she's seen the site as a practical resource rather than a social network: "I use it as Reddit/Craigslist."

From a young organizer's perspective, Facebook's popularity with older people, the hardest demographic to reach online, is actually a plus. "In thinking of all the platforms in use, I can't think of a platform that has the kind of interactive multilingual engagement that Facebook does," adds Maria, 33, another Bushwick Mutual Aid organizer. "Facebook is more familiar and most accessible by a larger audience," which is crucial, Maria says, for a "group seeking to serve the most vulnerable." "Everyone has Facebook," said Desposito. Or at least if they had it once, they can have it again.

These organizers aren't champions of Facebook, the company. Alicia cites how Facbook botched an attempt to cut down on price gouging of masks and PPE, also deleting all of Bushwick Mutual Aid's posts about swapping fabric and patterns. Organizers are also concerned about the privacy we now know people risk when they use Facebook. "The main hurdle I see holding it back is the amount of personal information one is expected to divulge in order to get involved in even the first steps," adds Maria. In general though, the urgency of the pandemic may have helped temporarily neutralize user distaste for Zuckerberg. Facebook has certainly positioned itself as a good samaritan: the site offers a "Coronavirus Information Center" on its homepage and hosted a virtual commencement ceremony for the class of 2020 featuring Oprah Winfrey, Miley Cyrus and Lil Nas X.

While some are using Facebook as a pandemic resource, others are using it to escape. The appeal of hyper-niche, highly interactive meme groups, a phenomenon fairly specific to Facebook, has massively intensified during quarantine. Emily Orenstein, 23, is one of the co-founders and administrators of New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens (NUMTOTs), a Facebook meme group dedicated to urban planning and public transit popular with young leftists (the group formally endorsed Bernie Sanders for president). She says the 200,000-strong forum has seen a "huge increase in post submissions" since quarantine began, "to the degree that we can barely clear the queue." Half their members are between 18-24, and 40% are 25-34. Orenstein says NUMTOTs mods are trying to strike a balance between "keeping the group as a place where people can escape the constant stream of pandemic news for a bit to have some fun" and sharing "information that could lead people to take positive action (e.g. mutual aid funds, info about strikes)."

In general, Facebook is no longer the center of meme culture: Instagram and Twitter each function as their own giant meme groups, with mass in-jokes and codes of language and etiquette. However, given their social and political leanings, both have ceased to be remotely escapist. While Twitter memes are constant reminders of our collapsing society and toxic online dynamics, thanks to groups — where content flow is filtered to all revolve around the same topic — there's a soothing, sane quality to Facebook's strange, secluded nooks.

Who? Weekly, a Facebook group dedicated to humor about B (or lower) list celebrities with an affiliated podcast, also saw a surge in membership requests when quarantine hit. Moderator Jamie Lewis, 30, says the pandemic hasn't necessarily changed the group's dynamics, but has reinforced "how important it is right now to have a community or a place where you can escape and distract yourself from the general heaviness of our current events."

There's possibly no group more niche or escapist than A group where we all pretend to be ants in an ant colony. All posts, whether requests for "help carrying" a slice of banana back to "the queen" or sharing insect-related TikToks, are made from an ant's POV, in a hypnotizing call and response format. "EAT" a photo of Flaming Hot Cheetos is captioned." "C R U N C H," "N O M," and "S P I C Y" respond helpful ants. "Some of you guys are suppose to be working on tunnels today. Not sharing memes," one ant chided, after a clip from A Bug's Life garnered responses such as "F U N N Y," "N O S T A L G I A" and "G I G G L E." "Guys, I think there's something wrong with the H U M A N S I haven't be seeing them out lately," another ant-poster writes.

A month ago this strange community had around 145,000 members. At publishing time, it had 1.8 million. "We went from having maybe 100 posts a day, to 85,000 pending posts in the span of a few hours," says Tyrese Childs, 20, the founder of the group. He says the group's members are as young as 13, though most are between 18 and 24. "It provides a space where you are only interested in one thing: being an ant. And that's why the pandemic will increase Facebook's relevance. People just want to escape to another world," he says. Indeed, character is rarely broken on the site, and current crises are almost never alluded to. "Just want to say thank you to the creator of this page you've helped me get thru a lot of depression with this group during this hard time," one earnest poster did break character to share with the group.

Highly polemic "Leftbook" groups of yore like Sounds like your analysis needs a bit more nuance but ok, and p o s t (the descendent of the Post Aesthetics) have gone quiet. But a whole new strain of wholesome play-acting groups, like A group where we all pretend to be roommates, A group where we all pretend to be bees, A group where we all pretend to be boomers, A group where we speak gibberish and pretend to understand each other and We Pretend It's 2007-2012 Internet are averaging hundreds of posts per day. Facebook has become a place to live out a less complicated existence, or even a utopic one. Like many of its peers, A group where we all pretend to live in an anarchist collective together, created a month ago, forbids references to COVID-19, and its Group Rules includes a "vibe check" clause: "If your post brings down the vibe we reserve the right to remove it."

Facebook — land of the boomers — has become a refuge, specifically because of its disconnectedness. For millennials at least, Facebook is transportive to a simpler time, even without "Groups where we pretend…" Navigating the website itself, let alone reading your old statuses, can feel like a throwback. I've found myself lingering on the "eight years ago today" photos appear on my timeline and scrolling through blurry travel, prom and red solo cup-filled photo albums. I'm comforted by boomer family friends' posts of their gardens and quarantine art projects.

The community organizing and meme group boom doesn't mean Facebook is "coming back," at least in the long-term. I text old Facebook photos to friends, or post them on my Instagram story, rather than sharing them to others' timelines. That would just be weird! The fact that Facebook's quarantine renaissance is mostly taking place within the groups feature reveals the niche direction the site was already headed. Facebook is no longer where the zeitgeist lives, or where we go to scroll or argue or score clout or go viral — it's where we go to escape all of that. Or to find a job or an apartment — tasks so materially useful and practical that they defy the current notion of social media itself.

It took the exaggerated dynamics of a pandemic to enlarge the picture, but for better or worse, Facebook has a future with young people. Framing it as a practical website full of wholesome content sounds strange in light of the political damage it has done — and especially to millennials who wasted their teen years hunched over Facebook sharing Buzzfeed quizzes and magazine covers to friends' walls and feeling bad about not being tagged in enough photos. It remains a political liability, but while we once found ourselves toiling for attention on Facebook timeline, nowadays the platform is working for us.

Photo via Getty