Groups are the only good thing left on Facebook | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Groups are the only good thing left on Facebook

While we’re all here in a hell of our own making, there are still ways to find community, or at least some spicy memes

Going on Facebook has started to feel like being stuck in a joyless marriage, only instead of silence, the torture comes in form of despair-inducing articles, updates from high school enemies and notifications for events you would never attend.

I can pinpoint when Facebook, against all odds, recently started to feel fun. When I discovered the celebrity gossip podcast Who? Weekly, it felt like finding a soulmate I didn't know I was missing. It's perfect fodder for the permanently deranged brains of anyone who started reading gossip blogs at age 12. The Who? Weekly Facebook group is a private corner of the site populated by more than 11,000 of the podcast’s listeners. I suddenly found myself logging on only to look at discussions in the group, which range from Jonathan Cheban's cursed behavior to Lea Michele conspiracy theories. It’s a virtual clubhouse — with US Weekly cutouts pasted on the walls — I can run to when the regular news cycle wears me down.  

Facebook was founded as a social network in the literal sense, a way to connect with friends, but now so much of the original intent has been corrupted by data breaches, election tampering and general hostility. In a Carrie Bradshaw way, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was ever fun in the first place.

Back in the old days, circa 2008, Facebook did, in fact, have fun and interactive ways to connect, annoy, joke around, stalk and flirt with “friends.” Features that once seemed essential to site’s identity are now digital relics, lost in the ephemera of the internet.

It was once mandatory for all status updates to start with "is," like "John is ... I'm hoping for a snow day!" There was a collective format to the speech, even if it made no sense. Before Pinterest and other image-curating sites, there were Bumper Stickers on Facebook, showing off phrases and pictures that could easily be found on boardwalk T-shirts. There were fan pages to "like" very specific feelings, such as "Flipping the Pillow to Get the Cold Side" or "Going Out of Your Way to Step on a Crunchy Leaf." Relationship statuses could be taken seriously, or they could be a friendship stunt. I've been "married" to a best friend from high school since 2010. Deleting it now would feel like a real divorce.

While Facebook has cut so many of its once ubiquitous features — most recently the dreaded Trending Topics section — it announced in May plans to improve the groups section and a push to make them a more prominent feature of the site. Facebook groups, especially the more niche ones, are one of the last bastions of community on a website that once built itself on the idea of connection. 

Many Facebook groups exist for community over a shared interest. In addition to podcasts, many publications, like Eater and The New Yorker, have made groups for their readers to connect with each other and the staff.

Groups have also become an unlikely haven for weird and specific memes. Facebook has traditionally been behind on Weird Internet culture, which is typically reserved for more underground and anonymous spaces, like Tumblr and Reddit. Facebook is where your aunt posts about her pottery class, not where you find the latest nihilistic SpongeBob meme. 

The group "New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens” boasts over 90,000 members, dedicated to memes and news involving public transit and urban design. (Here, "teens" does not refer to literal teenagers but translates from internet speak as "people whose brains are warped from growing up online.”) There are various spinoffs of these pages for specific regions and cities, including the group "Steel City Thoughts for Incline-Riding TOTS,” which has gained nearly 600 members since its formation in April. 

"There's discussions of everything from 'what's your favorite neighborhood in Pittsburgh' to 'what do you think about the new Port Authority CEO'," says Ben Panko, administrator and creator of the "Steel City" group. You might also find pictures of Giant Eagle architecture that is hostile to birds or images of an overturned coal barge floating in the Monongahela described as a "floatyboi." 

"I'm kind of an old man already, even though I'm 25. I don't really wanna learn new platforms," Panko says. 

He started the group as a way to meet new people with common interests after moving to Pittsburgh from Washington, D.C. six months ago. A couple weeks ago, he hosted a meet-up for group members. About five people showed up, drinking cider and eating guacamole and trying to determine whether a shared love of urbanism-based content could translate to real world connections. 

There are other locally-focused meme groups, like "Overpriced Apartment Memes for Yuppie Teens" (Pittsburghers bonding over hatred of sterile new-build condos) and "Carnegie Mellon Memes for Spicy Teens" (inside jokes about the Wi-Fi). 

Large groups like these are usually private and occasionally have screening questions. For Who? Weekly, it's a riddle easily answered by real listeners of the podcast. For "Steel City," it asks potential members their favorite neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Conditional agreements prohibiting harassment and/or hate speech are common, as are moderators that post rules to help maintain decorum, which is rarely found elsewhere on the internet.

It’s hard to know where either the internet or social media will go from here. All we know is that they’re here to stay. Facebook might not be a good or healthy or even safe place to be on the internet, but while we’re all here in a hell of our own making, there are still ways to find community, or at least bond over some spicy memes.

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