For the past six months, Mark Zuckerberg has been zigzagging the US on a well-publicized, whirlwind tour to chat with people outside the insular bubble of Silicon Valley. Along the way, Facebook's CEO met with Ford factory workers in Michigan, cattle farmers in Wisconsin and community leaders in New Orleans.
But while Zuckerberg's been attracting headlines and fueling speculation he wants to run for office, behind the scenes, another member of Facebook's top brass has been on a low-key meet-and-greet of a different kind.
Zuckerberg's longtime friend, Chris Cox, has been on a fact-finding mission with some of the nearly 2 billion people who use the social network every month. Cox, Facebook's product chief, has met with community leaders from Facebook Groups every two weeks to find out what they need from him.
Cox and Zuckerberg have been spreading the gospel of Facebook -- the company's oft-repeated mission statement of "making the world more open and connected." But on Thursday, during its inaugural Facebook Community Summit in Chicago, the company announced a change in its mantra. Facebook's new mission: "Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together."
"'Closeness together' is the operative idea," says Cox, sitting in a wood-trimmed conference room behind his desk at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California. "We've now connected a lot of people through our services, and we really want to push the thinking towards closeness -- which is more than connectedness."
Facebook Groups are the public and private communities that exist outside your general news feed -- like the Hillary Clinton group Pantsuit Nation or the Lady Bikers of California, a group for women motorcyclists. Cox has been meeting with the moderators of groups like that. One trip took him as far as Lagos, Nigeria, earlier this year to meet with young, aspiring graphic designers.
Cox says reaching 2 billion Facebook users, which is expected sometime soon, seems like a good time to re-evaluate the company's mission. That's why on Thursday it's also introducing new features for Facebook Groups, including an analytics tool that lets administrators see engagement metrics.
There's also a good business reason for Facebook to invest in Groups. The more people share on Facebook, the more the company can woo marketers and advertisers. The Groups service could also be an avenue for people to share their interests in more specific ways. That's especially important as Facebook tries to fend off rivals like Snapchat, where lots of young users spend their time.
Meanwhile, Zuckerberg and his team have been grappling with some existential questions about Facebook's role in the world lately. Some of President Donald Trump's detractors blamed fake news circulating on the platform for tipping the scales in Trump's favor during the US election in November. The company has also been hammered over everything from violence and death livestreamed on the site via Facebook Live, to charges of perpetuating "filter bubbles" that warp our outlooks by pretty much only showing us stuff on our news feeds that already aligns with our personal views.
At a Facebook event in February, Zuckerberg, 33, acknowledged there's "more division" in the world now than there has been in a while. "That means that connecting with friends and bringing groups together is probably more important now than it ever has been, or has been in a very long time," he said in February.
Later that month, he posted a nearly 6,000-word manifesto detailing Facebook's new modern-day ethos, including using artificial intelligence to thwart terrorism recruitment and making the social network a vessel for civic engagement.
The next step, he said, is convincing people to talk to one another more. And he believes Facebook's Groups feature can help make that happen.
"Online communities make our physical communities stronger," Zuckerberg said during a speech in Chicago on Thursday. Facebook has begun using artificial intelligence programs to suggest communities to people already, and he said it's working. "It's going to strengthen our overall social fabric and bring the world closer together."
As we walk through Facebook's Frank Gehry-designed headquarters, billed as the largest open office in the world, I ask Cox how much the new mission and focus on community has to do with the election. "There were a lot of factors," he says. "There's a lot going on in the climate of 2017."
Others think Facebook is finally reckoning with its influence.
"They recognize the role they play in terms of actually driving social structure," Bob O'Donnell, president of Technalysis Research, says. "Pardon the metaphor, but I think Facebook is a young adult now. It realized, 'Oh shit, I'm not a kid now. I have all these responsibilities.'"
The new focus on Facebook Groups, which has more than a billion users, is to make sure administrators are treated like "first-class citizens," says Cox.
One of the new features is an analytics tool for admins called Group Insights. The tool lets admins see real-time metrics for their groups, and help them figure out trends. So, for example, they can decide what days are better for posting stuff. Or they can find out what content drives more engagement.
It's similar to what the company offers business owners who have Facebook brand pages. The tools will be available on phones and desktop computers.
Another new feature lets admins filter requests from people trying to join the group. So, you can filter by things like gender or location and approve or decline requests in bulk. The reason? If you've got a group for moms who are physicians, Cox says, you probably don't want men in the group. It's similar to when Facebook first started: You had to be a college student, with a .edu email address, to sign up.
Other features include being able to link similar groups to each other, or being able to schedule posts for a specific day or time. If a person leaves a group, admins can easily delete their posts or comments.
Facebook says it hopes the growth of Groups will help in its new goal of bringing people closer together.
"We know that communities are one of the ways people try to find common ground," says Cox. "Communities are going to be places where they encounter somebody they didn't already know, in a context where they form a bond."
So in these times of division, as Zuckerberg put it in February, can the new Groups features help bring people with different political views closer together? That's tricky, Cox says, citing data that says when you show someone something they disagree with, it usually sends them in the opposite direction.
"That's a complicated one," says Cox. Then he repeats it. "That's a complicated one."
First published June 22, 9:13 a.m. PT.
Update, June 23 at 9:55 a.m. PT: Adds background on Facebook's event in February.
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