Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for communities on his platform is very different from how users are gathering together there organically.
Over the past few years, thousands of groups with nonsensical names have cropped up all over Facebook. You’ll find these groups tagged in the comments section on articles, photos, and videos, and in other groups. Their names read like comments themselves: “I’m disappointed, but I still love you,” “Is this a bootlickers fetish convention?” and “this post mugged and murdered my parents in an alleyway.” They’re called tag groups, and they have taken over Facebook.
Earlier this month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took the stage at the company’s annual developer conference to declare that the company would completely overhaul its platform to focus on one product: groups. More than 400 million of Facebook’s 2.37 billion monthly users are already participating in groups, according to the company, and Zuckerberg reiterated again on Instagram that Facebook believes its future is as a network of small communities. “We’re focused on building the digital equivalent of the living room, where you can interact in all the ways you’d want privately—from messaging and stories to secure payments and more,” he wrote.
But Zuckerberg’s vision for groups—a sort of digital version of the local knitting circle, kayaking club, or mom’s meet-up—is very different from the ground-up group culture that is dominated by one particular format: the tag group. I’m a member of more than 500 myself. They’re so popular that Facebook is now home to hundreds of meta-groups dedicated to surfacing tens of thousands of new tag groups. The content in most tag groups is a mix of memes and posts very generally related to the name of the group. Many veer off topic and develop their own community norms.
Tag groups are not new, but they have exploded in popularity over the past couple of years. The groups are an offshoot of what is known as “Weird Facebook”: a broad network of meme pages, groups, and cultlike characters that has injected your dad’s favorite social network with some absurdist humor over the past several years. “If David Lynch and Yung Lean could project their consciousnesses into social media, it’d be Weird Facebook,” Jordan Pedersen wrote in The Daily Dot in 2014.
Renee Cusick, who is a member of 6,000 Facebook groups, the maximum number that the platform allows you to join, first noticed tag groups cropping up in 2014. Facebook added the ability to tag groups in comments, and fans of Weird Facebook figures such as Laird Allen, and later Jeff Conner and Gary Allen, began creating groups to react to people in the comments.
Soon, all types of people were creating tag groups and hundreds of thousands of users were joining them. Some tag groups have upwards of 150,000 members; some have just a handful. The ones that take off, take off quickly. When someone utters a new phrase on Game of Thrones, for instance, people rush to their computer to create tag groups named after the particular line. Any sentence can become the title of a tag group, and often the more niche, the better.
Some recent tag groups that have popped up in comments in my feed include: “Sounds like a weirdly specific question but ok,” “I would be shocked but depression and the internet has numbed me,” “die mad about it, sweaty,” “sounds stoned and wholesome but okay,” “what in the Florida man is going on here,” “I dream of being this petty,” “I went to hell for laughing at this,” “Wow, did you have to call me out like that?” and “Did you make this tag group just to use for this post?” As Brad Esposito reported for BuzzFeed, some people create tag groups simply in an effort to immortalize a catchphrase.
The core appeal of tag groups, however, is not their function as a reaction meme. It’s the escape they offer from the wider internet.
Joining a tag group is sort of like entering an AOL chat room, or discovering a new GeoCities web ring. The groups are open enough that usually anyone can join, and they tend to have a mix of people representing different areas, demographics, and interests. “To me, it reminds me of my early days on the internet,” says Gary Allen, who is also a member of 6,000 tag groups. “It’s like forum chatting.”
Some groups are strict and tightly moderated; some are a free-for-all. Politically, some skew right; some skew left. In some, people ask for advice on family situations or breakups; in others, members discuss current events. At least one couple met through tag groups and recently had a baby, says Jeff Connor, who founded the tag group they met in. It’s almost impossible to tell what kind of tag group you’re in until you’re in it: You join, see if you vibe with the people and community norms, and if not, you move on to the next.
“We’re nerds who got older and wanted to have a thing that makes us cool and keeps our generation tight,” says Cusick. Tag groups “are kind of like Breakfast Club. It’s just a bunch of really random individuals who don’t have anything in common to come together to have these conversations.”
Koty Hendricks discovered tag groups in the fall, and initially joined a few so she could use them as reactions to people’s posts. “I’m in one that’s titled ‘The bar was already so low, but this man had a shovel,’” she said over Facebook Messenger. “I tag it in comments when my male FB friends share misogynistic/homophobic posts.” Over time, however, she’s come to value the communities in the groups themselves. “I feel like most of my tag groups have a sort of community aspect in that we generally share a same set of values when it comes to social awareness or norms,” she said. Unlike the broader internet, where her words might be taken out of context, tag groups allow Hendricks to chat with people who take her humor and comments in good faith.
Helping users meet and connect with new people is key to any social platform’s continued growth—after all, many users usually want to engage with new people, not brands or content. But on our current feed-dominated internet, finding and connecting with a tight group of people is hard. This may be especially true on Facebook, which was developed in an era when making friends on the internet still carried a stigma, and which is still largely built for nurturing the relationships you already have in the physical world, not creating new ones. Discovery on Facebook has been primarily focused on content (getting you to follow new pages or watch videos), rather than people.
So users are embracing more and more private spaces. Many people have migrated to Slack, Discord, iMessage, and other private-messaging platforms, finding that group chats are a healthier way to interact and keep up with friends than monitoring a million feeds.
But group chats still aren’t great for finding and meeting new people. Tag groups offer the perfect balance of randomness and familiarity that makes forming new friends easy. Meeting people in a tag group feels serendipitous but comfortable, and that’s what keeps people coming back for more. You might not have hobbies in common with fellow tag-group members, but you share a similar sense of humor or an outlook on life that makes chatting easy. “It’s more personality bonding than curiosity bonding,” Connor says.
Unfortunately, tag groups regularly get deleted for violating rules. One tag group, in which users could communicate only by tagging other tag groups, was penalized after Facebook cracked down on a rule against users tagging too many groups too quickly. On Wednesday night, hundreds of tag groups went “secret,” becoming unsearchable, after a mass reporting effort sparked a Facebook crackdown on meme groups. Tag-group administrators also haven’t been paraded onstage at any Facebook-sponsored events the way interest-based-group administrators have, and many tag-group owners are frustrated by the platform’s redesign, which makes tag groups harder to find, since many have unconventional names that have nothing to do with the communities they contain.
“Zuckerberg is so out of touch with his users,” Cusick says. “They’re so focused on Make a group for your club; join an interest group, they don’t understand that that’s not how the majority of your groups are being used.” But Gary Allen told me that Zuckerberg joined one tag group he’s in, “Previously unsaid sentences in human history.” (Facebook did not respond to a request for comment about this.) “It was a big deal when he joined,” Allen said. “People were like, Oh, I hope he doesn’t ruin it.”