How’s that for gratitude…

11 minute read

March 19, 2024, 9:23 AM

Some people, I just don’t understand.  I had been involved in a Facebook group called “You know you’re from Gaithersburg, Maryland if”.  The group’s purpose was to share nostalgic content about Gaithersburg, Maryland, which is the town right next to Montgomery Village, where I live.  However, the group had extremely lax moderation, and by “extremely lax”, I mean “none”, as there was no one keeping an eye on things to make sure that good posts were getting through and off-topic or spam posts were being removed.  As a result, most of the group’s content consisted of advertisements for moving companies, air duct cleaning, gutter replacement, furniture cleaning, carpet cleaning, and car detailing.  In other words, it was spam city.  The only reason that I stayed in the group was to maybe get a piece of historic Gaithersburg content.  After all, I was in the group in the first place because I was interested in getting a bit of local history from the perspective of locals.  I’ve only been familiar with Gaithersburg since 2007, and have only lived in the Gaithersburg area since 2017.  So as far local history goes, I’ve only been around to witness a small slice of it.  I rely on other people to provide the rest.

Then one day this past December, while Elyse and I were out having lunch, I got a notification from Facebook saying that they wanted to promote me to admin of this group because the group had no active admins.  In other words, what I had suspected was true: the existing group admins had taken a permanent lunch break, so Facebook picked someone from amongst the membership to run the group.  I just had to tap “accept” on my phone, and they handed me the keys to the castle.  All of a sudden, I was in charge of a group in which I had been a somewhat passive participant for several years.

Having been a participant in this group for several years prior, albeit fairly quiet previously, I had formed opinions about how this group, which was mostly a spam group at that point, could be improved.  Now, having been appointed as an admin by Facebook itself, I got right to work on improving things.  Seriously, I got the notification on my phone while we were sitting at Taco Bell eating our food, and I accepted and jumped right in.  I figured that if Facebook was unilaterally appointing me as an admin of this group, they had given up on the old admins, and so I operated as if the old admins were gone.

The first thing that I did was to require preapproval of all posts before they became visible in the group.  This way, the flow of new spam posts would stop right away while I was fixing up this long-neglected group.  No sense in cleaning up old spam posts if new spam posts were coming in right behind them to take their place, right?

With the flow of new spam posts stopped, I went to work removing the mountain of spam posts.  There were hundreds of them.  Fortunately, I was able to remove all of the posts made by a given person at once, which cut my workload down considerably.  However, a lot of posts still had to be removed individually.  I wouldn’t buy anything from the hucksters that were using that group to advertise for free, and I hoped that no one else would, either.  But considering the amount of spam posts over and over from the same users, I imagine that they got just enough business from these spam posts to justify the efforts.  But those days were now over, as I removed spam posts en masse, and banned the spammers from the group.  The idea was that I can’t stop them from spamming altogether, but I can at least stop them from posting spam in places that I moderate.  I ultimately made two passes over the group’s content to remove spam.  The first pass removed most of it, and with most of the spam posts gone, it quickly revealed the spam posts that I had missed.  Once those posts were revealed, I zapped them, too, and banned those posters as well.

What I did after this was where I truly went above and beyond, and demonstrated that (A) I was dedicated to combating spam on this Gaithersburg group, and (B) I was determined to make it into a functioning group rather than a spam bucket.  To that end, I set up a whole lot of filters designed to catch the spam and remove it automatically.

After setting up the spam filters, I took care of the public side of the group in order to say, “Hey, we’re starting fresh!”  To that end, I changed the group’s name from “You know you’re from Gaithersburg, Maryland if” to “Gaithersburg Nostalgia”.  The genius behind the name change was not only that it was a greatly simplified name, but it also notified every single group member about the new name, and sent them a link to the improved group.  In other words, instant promotion.

With things cleaned up and new content posted, I also set up posting rules for the group:

  • Scope of this group: This group is about Gaithersburg, Maryland and the immediate surrounding area.
  • Treat all participants with respect: Please be civil in comments and posts, and treat all participants with respect.
  • No advertising: Advertising posts of any kind are not permitted in Gaithersburg Nostalgia.  If you want to advertise, buy an ad.
  • No buying and selling posts: Posts advertising items for sale are not permitted on Gaithersburg Nostalgia.  Facebook Marketplace exists for this purpose, as do many other buy/sell groups.

I also made a new welcome post to introduce myself as well as the new posting rules.  Here’s the relevant passage about the rules:

In regard to changes going forward, I have two big ones.  First, advertising posts of any kind are not allowed.  If you want to advertise your business, take out a paid advertisement on Facebook.  This group is not the place to do it.  This prohibition also includes buying/selling posts.  Facebook Marketplace exists for that purpose, and there are plenty of local buy/sell groups.  This group is for trading memories, not things.  The other big change is that all posts are currently subject to approval before they will appear in the group.  This is being done solely to combat spam.  I hate when group moderators gatekeep their users’ posts, but it’s the only way to definitively keep the spam out.  As long as your post isn’t advertising, it will be approved.

And finally, I posted some new content to help kickstart the reborn group.  It was looking pretty sharp:

Gaithersburg Nostalgia group after I cleaned it up

And that’s where things stood for a while.  I was one of three admins on the group, with my having been appointed by Facebook, and the other two’s being legacy admins from the group’s original creation that I couldn’t remove.  I would get participant requests, and I would get the occasional post request, all of which I could approve or deny.  Additionally, the spam filters were working pretty well, catching the spam and leaving it all in a pile to be confirmed and then deleted (and also ban the accounts doing the spamming).  I got the sense that the group’s many years existing more or less as a spam group had taken a toll on its reputation, as I didn’t get much in the way of legitimate content, and most of my time moderating the group was spent kicking spammers spammers.

I eventually stopped getting approval requests for Gaithersburg Nostalgia.  I figured that the spammers had finally realized that they couldn’t post their spam there anymore and had moved on, and that, considering the group’s history, there was no real interest from others in populating this group with new content.  I also had a very limited amount of content to share with the group, and so I couldn’t keep things moving in that regard, myself.

So a couple of weeks ago, I went over to the group to check on it.  Imagine my surprise to find that I couldn’t access any of the admin functions on the group.  I also saw a post on there that I didn’t approve advertising an event, which was not supposed to be allowed.  I quickly put two and two together: I had been removed as an admin of the group by one of the two legacy admins, Jack Ward and Arie Deloney.  I messaged both of them, asking why I was removed as an admin.  To date, I have received no response from either one of them.  How rude.  Considering that Deloney was also removed as an admin within the last week, I suspect that Ward was the one who removed me.

Then when I checked the group again for purposes of writing this Journal entry, I found this:

A new spam post on the Gaithersburg Nostalgia group

Yep – it’s a new spam post.  Now that I was out as an admin, it was clear that Ward was more than happy to restore the group’s previous positioning as a place for spam.  In other words, all of my work was for nothing, as another admin, without saying a word to anyone, removed me and reversed my changes.  Considering that Ward did not respond to my requests to find out what was going on, I decided that enough was enough.  So I did the only reasonable thing that I could still do.  I removed all of my content and left the group:

The way I figure, if Ward is determined to maintain this as a spam group, I’m taking my name off of it and completely washing my hands of it all, because I don’t want my name to be associated with spammers in any way, shape, or form.  The hell with it all, I’m out.

Also, how’s that for gratitude?  For years, he neglected to properly maintain the group that he created, so when Facebook appointed a new admin for the group because he wasn’t doing the job, and the new admin actually cleaned the whole thing up, his way of saying thank you was to remove the new admin without saying anything, and revert the changes made to combat spam, letting the spammers have free reign over the place once again.  What a real piece of work he turned out to be.  My thought is that if you’re not going to maintain a group, step aside and let someone else do it.

This, of course, brings us to a discussion of governance on Facebook when it comes to groups.  I’ve gone on at great length about everything that is wrong with Reddit’s governance, but I’ve never really discussed Facebook’s governance.  It’s a different situation, and like Reddit, it shows why tech people are usually not the right ones to determine the rules for online social spaces.  They may have the technical chops to implement things, but they lack the people skills to come up with things that work and don’t create weird power situations.

It is also worth noting that from everything that I can tell, Facebook has never had an original idea of its own.  Just about everything that they have added to their site was copied from somewhere else.  Stories?  That’s their effort to copy Snapchat.  Reels?  That’s Facebook’s answer to TikTok.  Threads?  That’s their version of Twitter.  Marketplace?  Craigslist.  And Instagram?  They acquired that service from outside.  So with that in mind, I have low expectations for Facebook in the first place.

The problem here, as I see it, is that on Facebook, not all group admins are treated equally.  While all people who are assigned as group admins have the same abilities to configure, operate, and maintain the group, the person who starts a Facebook group gets a special position, where they are not able to be removed by anyone, and therefore are accountable to no one.  Meanwhile, the founder can remove any other group admin, and any admin can remove any other admin, except for the founder.  There are arguments that can be made that providing a special place for the founder helps ensure that the group’s original vision can be maintained, but that can also become a problem.

One example of how this can potentially be problematic is the case of the official Facebook group for the union where I am a member.  It was created by a union employee in the course of their official duties around nine years ago, but that employee now hasn’t worked for the union in about seven years.  But they are still an administrator of the group, even though they don’t work there anymore, and no one can remove them because they hold the account that created the group.  It was a mistake on the union’s part to create the group under an employee’s personal account in the first place, but that’s how it happened, and now they’re stuck with it.

Then in the case of the Gaithersburg Nostalgia group, I was brought into the fold as a group admin not by invitation originating from inside the group, but by Facebook itself.  By my being appointed by an outside party, my joining the admin team was essentially a hostile takeover initiated by Facebook, since the existing group admins had no role in my appointment.  The problem was that once I was in, as this new admin appointed from outside, that I was a regular group admin just like everyone else, with no extra protections stemming from my outside appointment.  Thus I was subject to removal at any time by other admins, and the person who created the group was still completely untouchable.  And when I was removed, I got no notification whatsoever, either from Ward or Deloney, or from Facebook.  The only way that I found out was by going to the group and seeing that my access had been removed.  It’s just like when someone unfriends you, and you get no notification whatsoever from Facebook, and the only way that you find out is to see that little “Add Friend” button where it used to say “Friends”, or, worse, you see their name come up in the “people you may know” list, and think, wait a second, weren’t we friends?  Either way, how rude.

Compare this to the way other sites handle such things.  On Reddit, they will not unilaterally reassign a subreddit to a user on their own, but when a subreddit becomes unmoderated due to moderator departure or inactivity, Reddit will either lock it to prevent new posts, or outright ban it for a lack of moderators.  However, when another user requests an inactive subreddit through the proper process, assuming that all of the requirements are otherwise met, Reddit management will appoint them as a new moderator and then remove the old moderator(s), allowing the new moderator to be able to make a clean break from the past.  So there is no chance of the old moderator’s coming back and making life difficult for the new moderator, because they are removed from their spot, meaning that the new moderator is now at the top of Reddit’s seniority-based moderation system (where moderators can remove any moderator that was there for less time than them, but can’t remove someone with more time than them).  Thus no one can remove the new moderator unless they leave on their own.

Then there is the way that Flickr handles absentee group admins.  On Flickr, a group admin is completely untouchable by anyone except Flickr staff.  So if there are, say, five admins in a group, they are all 100% equal to each other, and none of them are going anywhere unless they step down on their own.  So when a group admin goes missing and a new user requests to take over a group, they are added as an admin alongside the missing admin.  You can’t remove the old admin, and if the old admin ever were to return, they can’t remove you.

All of that said, Facebook should consider implementing one of those methods for handling group admins.  Because right now, with all group admins’ being able to remove any other admin, and the founder’s geting an untouchable status, it’s a very strange dynamic.  And in the case of what happened with me, what’s the point of Facebook’s appointing a new admin to take over the group if the founder or another absentee admin can just come in and remove the new, externally-appointed admin?  It was clear that Ward didn’t want me around, so he removed me.  The whole exercise was a colossal waste of everyone’s time, because after he removed me, he welcomed the spammers once again.  And at the end of the day, no one benefitted from that.  I could see arguments both ways.  On one hand, if Facebook believes that it’s necessary tlo appoint a new admin for a group, they should also sweep out the old admins, because clearly, they’re not doing anything with the group, so who needs them.  Once the new admin accepts, that should automatically bump all of the old admins, founder included.  Then on the other side of things, perhaps all group admins should get “founder” status regardless of when or by whom they were appointed, thus making all group admins completely equal.  In that situation, an external appointee would not be able to be removed by another admin, but no other admin would be able to be removed, either.  So if Facebook decides on its own that a group needs a new admin, they are protected from idiots like Jack Ward.  And in both situations, it’s not an original idea, so Facebook should be just fine in implementing it, because they just copy everyone else’s ideas already.

Meanwhile, I have certainly learned my lesson about helping rescue distressed groups on Facebook, because a toxic admin can remove the externally-appointed admin and reverse any changes in no time, and it all ends up back at square one.  And I actually like rescuing distressed online communities.  I’ve rescued plenty of distressed subreddits and Flickr groups over the years and nursed them back to health.  So it’s pretty doable, if the right tools and protections are in place.  But for Facebook groups, I’m not doing this again unless my position is protected.  And unfortunately, I don’t see that happening.