Wednesday, June 23, 2021

20,000 members in the International Tea Talk FB group


looks more like a business page than it really is

This is a good prompt for reconsidering what some social media stats mean.  It's always hard to place, isn't it, what the number of Facebook post likes means, or Instagram followers?  Taken alone nothing specific, I guess.  Facebook group membership is all the more vague, given how people tend to join a few dozen groups and then interact with few of them.  Most people wouldn't even see posts in their feed, based on that.

Let's back up:  I helped co-found the International Tea Talk group a few years ago, adding half the new members from a friends list, along with Shana Zhang, the real owner.  I'm not credited as a co-founder but that's fine; I don't put value on that official role title anyway.  I'm essentially the sole moderator / admin, which is more about workload than getting credit.  It's all good.  It's strange I stuck around that long; I helped a second online contact start a group at the same time and that's gone quiet long ago.

The group theme is about internationally oriented tea discussion.  A lot of Facebook tea groups turn into streams of ads, since vendors use the groups to post those, and it was a judgement call but explicit ads aren't allowed in that group.  I won't get into applied ad definition, moderation grey area, and daily screening practice here, but all that could fill up a 1000 word post.

Back to the theme here; what does it mean that this group has 20,000 members, versus some other group having 10 or 15,000?  Nothing at all, of course.  The count went up a bit fast because the "international" theme broadens scope.  Groups like Gong Fu Cha and the Puerh Tea Club have narrower themes, not necessarily limited to US or European membership, but it tends to relate to more participation from those areas.  "International" is everywhere, by definition.  The theme naturally led to including more tea producers as members, and plenty of vendors, and because those people are networked in different countries it amounted to a lot of Facebook group suggestions to people.

Placing other stats

I keep coming back to considering social media stats related to FB or Instagram contact count, and even more so in relation to blog reach / post views.  Facebook changed a feed routing algorithm quite a bit something like 2 1/2 years ago and the reach of this blog dropped considerably, down from 300-500 views per post to more like 100.  I couldn't fully place what it meant that only a third as many people were reading what I wrote.  Group feed posting, other FB filtering algorithms, probably changed considerably then too.  It might have worked to try to bump use of hashtags in Instagram, or post to Twitter, or whatever else, to reclaim some viewership, but I never did.  Reading over 1000 words of text is a challenge; it's strange that many people do it regularly.

It has been interesting experimenting with Quora, a question and answer themed site, and noticing how reach / engagement stats are so much higher there.  I don't necessarily interpret that to relate to any actual engagement; scrolling past a post heading isn't much of a "view."  Those stats are so interesting--to me at least--that I'll cite my personal stats and those for a "space" here:

4.2 million answer views for my personal profile and 120k for the Specialty Tea Space (my "group" equivalent; I accept content shared there by others but it's mostly what I write).  Seems like a lot.

I've seen different Facebook post or group stats, of course, but a quick reference to most popular posts (from the last month) in that International Tea Talk group can help clarify the range of reach:

So some posts were seen by 2700 to 6700 people; not bad.  I had thought group engagement would end up being quite limited since people tend to join a lot of groups but maybe not:

That count is a bit over 10,000 active members for the last month, with this three month view showing an upward trend.

What does it mean though?

Ok, so thousands of people really are seeing more popular posts, and 10,000 see something from that group in a month, with likes and comments varying a lot per post.  It's still hard to place.  It would almost make more sense to shift interpretive framework a little, from those stats, and try to consider what value people are getting out of the group, how the meaning varies by participant.

Advertising value is a bit limited for vendor members (and by extension maybe to consumers), but plenty find ways to work around the explicit ad restriction, adding other content instead of advertising.  And the ad posts stay up until I clear them.  After posting an ad members are placed on one month post pre-approval status, and deleted from the group if a stream of ad posts follow that, requiring daily review and deletion from that queue.

Two of those top five viewed posts are questions, two are information, and one kind of a general starting point.  I mention these blog posts there but they would draw less attention.  The post I've added that was viewed most was about US tea production, sharing a post by Jason McDonald about the Great Mississippi Tea Company growing a lot of clone plants (or seedlings, was it?).  It's interesting that in the most engaged post 300 people reacted with "likes" and such; seems like a lot.

Answers to questions probably make up a lot of the experienced value, for members.  If someone asks about physical shops where they live or are visiting, for example, related to anywhere in the world, there are typically a few good answers.  The same is true for asking about tea types, online references, or storage issues, and so on.  But it would all be equally true if there were half as many members, I think.

Limitations of that group, strengths of others

In order to make this more clearly about placing what tea groups are doing I'd like to mention a main limitation of this International version:  it has no clear central theme.  "International" is a theme, but it just means "from anywhere."  The Gong Fu Cha group narrows tea interest to a brewing approach and more ceremonial form; the Puerh Tea Club limits by tea type.  The Yunnan Sourcing Fans group makes for an unusual exception; it narrows theme and discussion down to one vendor.  And that works, although it can be a little annoying cutting off discussion at that range, since in many cases more interesting scope lies just outside what any one given vendor sells.

Narrower focus makes a group feel more like a real shared interest, like a social group form.  Narrower focus comes at a cost, beyond limiting potential membership count.  It stands out more when people's interests aren't within a perceived main part of the theme.  For a tea type like puerh (pu'er) that's less significant; there's a potential grey area related to the same tea coming from Myanmar or Vietnam or wherever, but basically it's clear what pu'er is, and isn't.  Whenever someone asks about a version of gushu from LBZ selling on Ebay that can feel a bit jarring, but it's a great place to hear why those teas may well not be worth the $10 they tend to sell for, or why drinking bad pu'er might not suit everyone.  People do post about grandpa style brewing once in awhile in the Gong Fu Cha group, and technically that's completely out of scope, but as long as topics are reasonable they'd be ok with that.

I think the Reddit r/tea group (subreddit) suffers from the same limitation; it's just about tea, in general.  Evolved consensus preference there is more about drinking grocery store versions brewed from tea bags, but it has evolved to include more loose specialty tea and gongfu brewing concerns just recently.  The r/puer group there seems narrower, but it doesn't really feel like a social group, like a set of main members who know each other.  I'm not sure why not; maybe it relates to people being generally anonymous on Reddit, with some exceptions.  That leads to a related question:  how do you intentionally build up that feeling of community?

Building a feeling of community in an online group

It's not as if I'm some sort of social media expert but of course I have some background exposure, so I'll add thoughts on this.  You build up the feeling of community in a few ways:

1. define scope narrowly enough to capture shared experience and perspective (already discussed).

2. set rules that limit problems, scope drift, and related membership turnover (applies to all groups).

3. develop a core group of main members who are familiar with each other.

1 and 2 are simple enough; 3 is tricky.  A couple of years ago there were a few main members of the International Tea Talk group who were most active (not many; two main ones come to mind), and essentially all of them participate relatively little now.  I don't think a natural active member "churn" is as much of an issue as initiating a group feel and regular participation in the first place.  One central owner can help post and set up an environment that encourages routine discussion and participation, but it kind of has to happen organically.  I suppose making a half dozen people fit more in that central role as moderators could use that role assignment step to support core group development.

I participated in an expat forum that achieved a sense of community and small group core better than anywhere else I've experienced online. I think part of that related to the natural shared experience (living abroad, being a foreigner), and to luck related to those guys getting along, and to Brits naturally embracing that kind of association.  Then the owner went off the rails a bit, eliminating more and more people for trivial violations, until it was like the Sopranos, and eventually everyone was going to be gone.  Then he pulled the plug.

#2 relates to an interesting case, maybe more familiar to Americans than others:  if any group allowed political posts a central trend for mostly liberal or conservative backing would exclude a large amount of members.  If membership was split, which could be even worse, the group could easily turn into a battleground for debating that difference.  Two examples of this come to mind.  One related to a tea group normally way outside that subject range making an exception and allowing some politically oriented current event discussion.  In the second case a Penn State alumni group really became messy as a result.  In both cases the set of issues seemed to "play through," so maybe it's not that critical a concern.  Surely some people quit both groups as a result but I would imagine most members just ignored it.

From there lots of steps I've never tried could help, like setting up group oriented online meetups, or using surveys to initiate discussion.  I post about content I'm creating, or news and events I find interesting, and that's about it.  Routine light conversation starters, like asking "what's in your cup today?" could help, but it doesn't seem like it contributes enough to make a lot of difference.  It might help to push that to a next step and ask about real current issues or background themes.  I've been considering forest or wild-sourced tea a bit lately; one might post and ask about experiences with that (and I should, come to think of it).  

With 20,000 members getting .1% together for a chat--20 people--is still too many, but hosting a podcast interview themed event might work; I've joined such a thing elsewhere before.  I've been holding a series of small-group video gatherings, that I've posted a lot about, but those aren't streamed live or recorded and posted for public viewing.

Changing to a broader scope, it's odd that Facebook groups have hung in there as a relevant format for as long as they have.  I first participated in Facebook tea groups around 8 or 9 years ago, and Tea Chat and Steepster have both more or less died since then.  Something like Discord groups could eventually replace FB groups, and Instagram already is a lot more active.  I don't love the Discord old mainframe board feel (just with better graphics, and a bit more diverse structure), and of course Instagram is mostly about pictures, short text, story clips (now reels?), and comments.  Maybe Facebook groups will last awhile.  The Quora Spaces theme always did seem like an experiment, and not one that necessarily took.  Questions and answers as a site theme only goes so far.

As in my own case Facebook works well for mixing a personally related profile, themed pages (tied to this blog), developed messaging function, and groups.  The "live" thing was interesting, while people did that, now transitioned some to more informal forms of podcasts and such.  Facebook's dabbling in stories forms and video media channels didn't seeming to have much impact.

One might wonder, why do I moderate a Facebook group, essentially covering the typical role of owner, why put that time in?  It started as an experiment, and now I'm not sure.  Partly out of force of habit.  Not everything I do is about my own benefit, and it seems like others must get some value out of it.  A lot of people have learned a lot, about background, references, and events, and many relatively specific questions have been answered.  Active participant transition limits a sense of community, but at any given time a lot of people are active there.  Maybe the true potential hasn't been realized yet, and some minor shift in form could develop more continuity and group feel.  To say that membership is truly global is a real understatement; group members are from everywhere.  There seems to be a lot of potential in that.

I've talked to hundreds of people related to participation, or in a broader sense have had limited contact with thousands, so it doesn't work to imply that I've taken limited value from the experience.  That meetup series I've mentioned included people from a lot of different countries, largely related to that contact.  It's really cool that if a question comes up about tea in a random place I can usually search back and find a message conversation with someone about there, regardless of where it is.  I think of it all as mostly not being about me though, more about the group being a positive discussion channel and resource for others.

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