Last year, I reached out to nearly 100 Strong Towns Local Conversations across North America. A Local Conversation is a group of people in a particular neighborhood, town, or city who meet to talk about how the Strong Towns approach can make their communities stronger and more resilient. I was curious how these local groups were faring this side of the pandemic, what they were working on, and how we at Strong Towns could come alongside and help.
Over the course of several months, I spoke with dozens of local leaders across the U.S. and Canada. Our conversations touched on the topics above, but we ranged further afield too, including talking about how their groups had gotten off the ground, what strategies had worked for them, and more.
Facebook: The Secret Weapon of the Strong Towns Movement?
Something that initially surprised me is just how many of our most vibrant and effective Strong Towns groups had an active presence on Facebook, usually as Facebook groups.
In addition to meeting in person, the Local Conversations were using Facebook to stay connected online. In their Facebook groups, they shared articles (not only Strong Towns articles, but also local and international stories), videos (like those from Not Just Bikes), and photos. They also organized events and discussed what was happening in their city.
What I learned was that inviting neighbors to join a Local Conversation’s Facebook group was a low-bar way of bringing neighbors into the Strong Towns discussion. It didn’t matter if those neighbors had heard of Strong Towns before or not, so long as they cared about one or more of the key Strong Towns issues: safe and productive streets, housing, financial solvency, and so forth. Newcomers could dip their toes into the conversation without the pressure of showing up right away to an in-person meeting.
More than a couple local leaders told me that their groups had actually gotten their start on Facebook. (Cary Westerbeck talked about his own experience with this in our Local Motive session earlier this year.) In time—it usually didn’t take long—these groups transitioned from connecting only in the metaverse, to connecting in the real world as well.
As I contemplated why Facebook had been so effective for many Local Conversations, I came up with two theories:
Facebook is where people are. Not everyone of course, and Facebook users tend to skew older than users on Twitter and TikTok. Still, Facebook is the largest social media platform (the competition doesn’t even come close). Nearly 70% of Americans use Facebook, and 70% of those use it daily.
Facebook is built for online community. Near as I can tell, Facebook provides a much better scaffolding for online community than do other social media sites like Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram. Facebook groups let you start and join discussions, share media, create and promote events, share files, and host group video hangouts. Other sites like Discord—a platform I’m learning and loving lately—let you do these things, too. But what they don’t do is allow you to connect organically with other potential allies. Joining a Discord server is a higher bar to entry for the Strong Towns-curious than accepting an invite into a Facebook group. That said, I think Discord and Facebook can be used beautifully in concert with one another.