Using Facebook to Create Community: The SAA Group Experience

Russell D. James
May 18, 2009


Context of Case Study

This case study will discuss the Society of American Archivists (SAA) group on Facebook1, a blooming Web 2.0 technology now utilized by millions of people worldwide, including many archivists, records managers, and others who are members of SAA. Facebook will be introduced, the creation and history of the SAA Facebook group will be presented, and a discussion will follow concerning the future of this Web 2.0 application and its potential for use by members of SAA.

The Society of American Archivists’ Facebook group page was created as a means of gathering SAA members onto one social networking site and giving them a place for communication about SAA and other subjects of interest to archivists. At the time of the creation of the group, there was no other place within other social networking sites for archivists to gather. Hopes were that the group page would include discussions about topics of interest to archivists. Two specific groups were being targeted: SAA members who were members of the Archives & Archivists listserv but who did not participate in the listserv’s discussion and SAA members who were not members of the Archives & Archivists listserv but who wanted a place for discussion apart from email.

Brief Description of Social Networking

Social networking has been defined as

the online technologies and practices people use to share knowledge and opinions. These types of media promote a shift from the broadcast model of communication to a many-to-many model that is rooted in conversations. Social media are those that use the ‘wisdom of crowds’ to connect information in a collaborative manner, through channels such as blogs, wikis and podcasts.2

Social networking software includes such platform technologies as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and the Ning family of communities. Like-minded persons with similar interests, hobbies, or professional activities can come together using these technologies and become “friends,” linking themselves in a specialized network which allows them access to each other’s personal profiles. Some of these sites, such as Facebook, allow friends to see each other’s periodic status updates, uploaded photograph and video files, or favorite things (like music, movies, television shows, food, etc.). Some sites, such as Facebook, allow for more personalized interaction through built-in chat programs and the ability to limit which friends can see what part of a member’s profile.

Description of Facebook

Facebook is a social networking application created at Harvard University in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg and some of his classmates to enhance online communication between them and other classmates.3 After graduation, Mr. Zuckerberg moved to the Silicon Valley in California and brought Facebook to the world. As of January 2009, the total membership in Facebook is 175 million individuals.4

The Web 2.0 application requires only a valid email address to become a member. Once an account is created, a member begins adding friends: people who may be high school or college classmates, family members, co-workers, professional colleagues, persons who share similar interests and hobbies, neighbors, or anyone the member wants to add as a friend. Each member sets up a profile that includes contact information, educational and work history, interests and hobbies, and other miscellaneous information. All these are optional. Most members join a network, which can be either a geographic network (city, state), a college or university network, or a worksite network (employer of the member). Network membership allows a person to narrow a search for friends. Members may add as many friends as they like.

A Facebook member is given a news-feed page, which consists of status updates of the member and their friends. Settings can be changed so the newsfeed shows the status updates of only those friends the member chooses to see. Members can also upload photographs and videos, link to websites, and add applications. Digg, Delicious, and Twitter feeds can all be added to a Facebook page using applications built for that purpose. Applications also include fun tests, a “Notes” tool for activities similar to blogging, and group memberships. Probably the most popular aspect of Facebook is the built-in chat program that allows friends to chat in real time, much like the old IRC chat rooms and current services like Yahoo! Messenger. But the Facebook chat service has an added bonus over these others—spam filters and other server-side software cannot turn off the chat program. In other words, a company or business must either allow Facebook chat by allowing its employees to view and update the site (and chat), or it must block Facebook altogether, an increasingly unpopular thing to do.5

Another application feature of Facebook group pages mirrors the pages and news feeds of individual members. Group members may post digital photographs to the group page. Other groups the author belongs to have done this successfully, sharing photographs of group events. The SAA Facebook group members have not posted any photographs to the group’s page.

Groups are created by individual Facebook members and consist of two types: general groups and fan pages. Fan pages are reserved for celebrity personalities, sports franchises, and corporate products (such as Dr. Pepper or Taco Bell). General groups are collections of members who have similar interests, hobbies, political positions, religious beliefs, or professional memberships. Almost every national and international professional organization has a corresponding Facebook group page, including the American Historical Association, American Institute of Architects, and the Society of American Foresters. The distinction between general groups and fan pages is sometimes blurred, as expressed by the American Institute of Architects: one can be either a member of the group (presumably for actual members of the physical association) or be a fan of the group. Facebook members may join as many fan pages as they like, but general group memberships is limited to 250 groups.

Facebook groups take on a distinct character that is different from other parts of Facebook. Groups are created for short- and long-term purposes. For instance, each presidential candidate in the 2008 election cycle had a Facebook group, created either by their campaign committees or loyal supporters. Some candidates, such as Barack Obama and John McCain, had many Facebook groups supporting them and many opposing them. Group names often reflect the purpose of the group, such as Support FOCA (Freedom of Choice Act) and Fight FOCA.6 Some groups, such as the New England Archivists Facebook group, are administered by the governing body of the physical association, though this is a rarity. Group membership can be limited to only those persons approved by the moderator or can be opened to everyone. The largest groups naturally have unlimited and unrestricted joining options.

Group moderators, who administer the activities of their particular Facebook group, can send messages to all the group’s members. But unlike moderators of fan pages, moderators of general groups cannot send updates for the group to the individual news feeds of each member. Members have the option of altering their news feed settings to exclude updates from particular members. Individual members can post messages on the group “Wall,” a bulletin board service aspect for each group that can only be viewed by members who log in to the group’s page. Presently, there are no other means of communication between group members.

Implementing the SAA Facebook Group

The Society of American Archivists’ Facebook group was created by the author in March 2006 and membership grew to over one hundred members by the end of April 2006. As of the writing of this article, total membership in the group is 903, which represents 18 percent of SAA’s actual membership. Because the group is open to anyone to join, however, there is no data available as to how many members of the Facebook group are actually dues-paying members of SAA.

When the Facebook group was created, the author, a dues-paying member of SAA, placed the Society’s logo on the site as the main profile photo for the group and then advertised the existence of the group on the Archives & Archivists (A&A) listserv. The moderator was immediately contacted by SAA personnel and asked to remove the logo, because the Facebook group was not an official project of the organization. This practice is rare, however, as can be seen by visiting the many Facebook group pages of other professional associations that are moderated by individuals and still have the association logo as the profile photograph.

Membership continued to grow in 2006 and 2007, but activities of the group were minimal. Some members placed announcements for upcoming conferences of other archival organizations on the group’s Wall. During this time period of roughly two years, the SAA Facebook group existed merely to exist, to show the world that the physical organization existed and its members had a presence on Facebook.

The group moderator was contacted in early 2008 by another SAA member, who expressed an interest in making the Facebook group more “present” to the SAA membership. The moderator made this person a co-moderator (one of the administrative functions reserved to the moderator). Over the course of the next eight months, the co-moderator changed the profile picture for the group from the default blue question mark (meaning no real profile picture has been set) to a photograph of the National Archives building in Washington D.C. (Archives 1). There is no direct or indirect association between the Society of American Archivists and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) nor between the SAA Facebook group and NARA. But the photograph of this building has remained the profile photograph for the group since that time. No complaints from NARA or others have been lodged with the moderator concerning the use of this photograph. Similarly, no persons have offered alternative photographs.

In 2008, the moderator began periodically asking questions of the members of the Facebook group by sending messages from the group page. These included asking the membership how they saw the Facebook group in light of their Web 2.0 experiences and what ideas they had to make the group more “present” in the lives of its members. An overwhelming number of respondents answered the messages with statements such as “I just belong to it. I don’t want to do anything with the group,” or “I joined the group to meet other archivists, but once I added those I wanted to as friends, the group became useless to me.” Respondents to three questions during 2008 all voiced similar responses, saying they did not see any other use for the group’s existence. Individual emails to the moderator included four members who said they were going to drop their membership in the Facebook group because the moderator sent out too many messages. Other members sent follow up emails telling the moderator that they thought the Wall should be used for announcements of upcoming events by SAA. One Facebook group member complained that there were too many members and thus it was impossible to find a person she wanted to be friends with because the list of members was not displayed on the group page in alphabetical order (the order seems random).

In early 2009, the moderator received a phone call from the executive director of the Society of American Archivists. The director informed the moderator that some concerns had been raised by the SAA attorney and by members of the Council that the Facebook group might be violating copyright and trademark restrictions on the name “Society of American Archivists.” The director asked the moderator whether he thought it was feasible for SAA to take over administration of the group. As the conversation ended, both parties agreed that SAA must discuss the matter further.

At the writing of this article, members of the SAA Facebook group have posted more conference announcements to the Wall, but email traffic has stopped entirely between the group and its members until solutions can be found on how to make the group more integrated into the Web 2.0 presence of SAA members.


Members of the Society of American Archivists (and presumably, others) belong to the SAA Facebook group simply for the purposes of belonging. Occasional posts to the Wall of the group do not indicate any interest in promoting the physical SAA group’s activities or those of other groups beyond the mere presentation of information. One or two members have attempted over the years to use the group like the A&A listserv, by posting questions in order to elicit discussion within the group. But their efforts have been in vain, as there are no follow-up answers on the Wall. This feature of an SAA group is a leftover from earlier iterations of the overall Facebook technology, which had no chat program included. If member A wanted to contact member B, they could either send that person a private message or send a public message to the other member using the Wall application, such as “happy birthday!” or, “do you think we could get anyone to go with us to the football game?”

Because the SAA group page is a general group page and not a fan page, the members of the group do not visit the page often enough for any communication to take place. No record of visits to the page exist, so the moderator is unable to tell how many times the group page is visited or by whom. But the inactivity on the Wall and the very small number of links posted to the page (for websites, videos, articles) may be an indication that the group page is not utilized by its members. Similar groups such as “Archivists and Records Managers” and “Archivists on Facebook” have fewer members, have membership from non-SAA members as well as SAA members, but still have little or no activity happening on their pages.

People join Facebook to renew long-lost contacts with friends, keep current contacts with such persons even more current, and make new contacts with people with like interests and activities. Interests can include professional association memberships. With a group page, a member may make a contact but not pursue the personalization of that contact, meaning the person gets to see who else is a member of the group but initiates no further involvement in the Facebook life of the other group members. In other words, it seems as if members of general groups often join the group just to join, with no expectation of involvement or further communication between the group and the member or between members of the group. Using other groups the moderator belongs to as a model, this seems to be standard across the board. People who use Facebook groups do not use them for communication, but instead just for belonging. Being a member of a group allows a member’s friends to know of the group’s existence and the member’s belonging to the group, possibly a status symbol within friend collectives on Facebook, or a statement of employment or other interest.

In early 2008, one member of the SAA Facebook group created another group, with the purpose of pressuring (in a fun way) one young SAA Council member to join Facebook. This additional group advertised its existence on the Wall of the SAA group page. The second group did get a high membership in its short existence, and the Council member did create an account and joined the SAA group. The moderator paid attention during the two or three weeks that this second group was in existence and working, to see if the membership of the SAA group increased and, if so, whether such an increase could be attributed to the Council member’s joining Facebook. The membership in the SAA group increased by approximately ten members during that time period, an indication to the moderator that the Council member’s joining of Facebook did not have any visible positive effect on the membership numbers of the SAA group. An increase of ten members is the norm for a month, though there have been a few large member number increases throughout the three-year existence of the group.

At the time of the writing of this article, there are two SAA Council members, two former Council members, and three candidates for Council for the 2008 election cycle that are members of the SAA Facebook group. No former presidents, secretaries, or treasurers are members of the Facebook group. Three SAA staff members are members of the Facebook group. None of these persons has posted to the group’s Wall and none of these persons has answered message queries from the group site by the moderator.

In November 2008, the moderator again polled the SAA Facebook group members by sending a message to all of them asking them to indicate how being a member of this particular group has benefited them professionally. Of the almost seven hundred fifty members at the time, twenty-four replied to the message. Two members indicated they did not like receiving messages from the group and were going to drop their Facebook group membership. Fifteen members indicated that they wanted to receive messages from the group through the SAA headquarters from SAA staff and not from the moderator. Twenty-one of the respondents indicated that their membership in the SAA Facebook group had not benefited them at all professionally, although three of those responses also included contrary statements that they had been able to add some archivists they had met at conferences as friends and that had helped them network with their fellow archivists.

Lessons Learned

General groups within Facebook are not set up to facilitate communication between group members. The Wall is a leftover application from earlier versions of the Facebook tool and because group members do not visit the group page often, if at all, the Wall contains a few postings by members with no responses to those postings. There are no other means of communication available to group members to communicate among themselves without adding every group member as a friend and communicating via a member’s news feed page.

Society of American Archivists members who join the SAA Facebook group do so, it seems, merely to belong to the group. Several attempts at gauging the needs and wants of members through messages sent by the moderator to the entire group elicited few responses, and few of those were informative about the group’s importance to the Web 2.0 presence of SAA members on Facebook. Members of this Facebook group do not seem to want to be bothered by messages from the moderator.

If the SAA Facebook group has a future that includes being a part of a member’s active Facebook presence, then certain changes in the general group applications must take place. Likewise, changes in the administration of the Facebook group may have positive effects on the group’s importance to SAA Facebook group members. Archivists can benefit from another community of professionals, a community that has the potential for communication about social networking or Web 2.0 among archivists. The SAA Facebook group page can benefit its members by providing another forum for discussions, one that may not be as limiting as the Archives & Archivists listserv or one of many other listservs owned by SAA or other organizations or entities. Rules for group communication on the SAA Facebook group can be developed, and can be more or less limiting than those for listserv use. Members can post photographs, audio, and video files to the Facebook group, which they cannot to the Archives & Archivists listserv.

Future Plans

Facebook adds applications almost daily, many of these developed by non-Facebook entrepreneurs. But Facebook staff also periodically change existing Facebook uses, such as adding the chat program in 2008,7 which enables friends to communicate in real time with their Facebook friends. General groups, however, have seen few changes in their operation since the SAA Facebook group was created. One of these changes is the recent 2009 addition of the ability of a Facebook group to advertise its existence to other Facebook members. For groups devoted to political or religious causes, increasing membership can be a positive thing, as they can show elected officials that, yes, people do care about this issue because such-and-such a number of Facebook members have joined the group devoted to the cause. But for general Facebook groups such as that of the Society of American Archivists, advertising its existence could invite non-SAA member and non-archivists/non-records managers to join the group, which could lead to spamming, snarking, and other unsavory Internet activities on the group’s Wall. An increase in the size of the membership of the SAA Facebook group has no effect on the group’s operations or the importance of the group to its members.

For the SAA Facebook group to become a tool that can benefit the professional lives of its members, the Facebook team must do some work to change the nature of communication between general groups’ members. Adding all 903 SAA Facebook group members as friends is a lengthy process and has no benefits to individuals who must then filter their own news feed page to not include the updates of most of their new friends. Most Facebook members will not take the time to do this, as it is an inconvenient process that takes away from the social nature of Facebook and is akin to programming or markup, activities Facebook members do not want to engage in when logged into the Facebook site. Members want social interaction, the overall purpose of Facebook, not more work.

One possible application that now exists in another form but could be added to the general group pages is a chat program.8 Members of each group could chat with other members of that same group in real time without having to have those other members as friends. For SAA Facebook group members, this could mean communicating socially or professionally with other archivists in a one-on-one chat. Topics for discussion are numerous, but presumably members of this group could share processing methods or help each other in locating materials. Unlike the Archives & Archivists listserv, these can take place in real time, without the need to have an email message delivered to a listserv distribution list and waiting for one or more replies, which sometimes can take days.

Real-time discussion through a chat program could also be enhanced beyond the limitations of the individual friend chat program on a member’s news feed page, by providing a chat environment where more than two members online and in the group’s page at the same time could chat with each other. This social mechanism has yet to be explored by the Facebook team, but could provide more of a social aspect in this regard. Presently, only Web 2.0 technologies such as Twitter have this capability of multiple persons interacting at the same time. Facebook, along with other companies, has tried to acquire Twitter over the few months before the writing of this case study.9 Perhaps if Facebook does acquire Twitter, then Twitter can be utilized in general group pages like this. If Facebook does not acquire Twitter, then a similar Twitter-like application could be added to general group pages for the purpose of allowing small group chat discussions.

However, the implementation of the Drupal content management system by the Society of American Archivists may make the SAA Facebook group obsolete in this manner, if Drupal has a real-time chat program that can be installed on the SAA homepage so that SAA members can communicate with each other from the homepage itself. Such operability would make the need for a Facebook page less important. SAA monitoring of the chats, or recording of the chat conversations, could make the Facebook group chat a viable option, however, as chats are not currently recorded or monitored by Facebook staff between individuals, and presumably would not be between members of groups.

Moderators of fan pages can now post updates of the group to the news feeds of individual members, but this functionality is not present for moderators of general group pages to utilize. If Facebook allowed a general group moderator to send group updates to individual members, then communication within the group might be enhanced, as more announcements could be posted, along with other information and educational updates. But a change to this type of moderation begs the question of how the SAA Facebook group would be any different than the A&A listserv or the Society of American Archivists website.

At the present time, SAA Council and staff and the moderator are exploring options for the takeover of the SAA Facebook group page by the Society itself, removing the member moderator from his duties as moderator and replacing the moderation by SAA staff or one or more Council members. There are no statistics as to whether SAA members visit the SAA homepage or Facebook more often, but given the social nature of Facebook, it is likely that Facebook receives more visits from SAA members than does the SAA website. However, as has been noted, there are also no statistics as to how often members visit the SAA Facebook group page, or how many members have ever done so. But presuming that SAA members who are also members of the SAA Facebook group visit Facebook more often, having SAA take over administration and moderation of the Facebook group may have various advantages.

Presently, SAA’s marketing of publications and products is limited to official publications of the association, such as Archival Outlook and The American Archivist, to the Archives & Archivist listserv, and on the SAA website. The listserv is the closest thing to real time communication that exists for SAA staff, but not all SAA members are members of the listserv, meaning not all SAA members get the emails from the staff regarding upcoming conferences, publications, registration deadlines, and other announcements. By SAA taking official control of the SAA Facebook group, such announcements could be sent to members of the group, possibly reaching some persons who would otherwise not be reached—those members of the Facebook group who do not receive messages from the listserv.

A concurrent option with that of SAA taking over the administration and moderation of the Facebook group is converting the group from a general group to a fan page group. Rather than merely joining the Facebook group, persons—archivists and non-archivists alike—could become fans of the Society of American Archivists. This way, SAA staff could send updates directly to the news feeds of individual fans. Staff could market publications and events or calls for contributions directly to its fans without having to send messages. Such updates will give SAA a more visible presence on Facebook, at least for the Facebook members who are fans of the organization.

Conversion from a general group to a fan page group will delete all members from the current group and they will need to become fans of the new group. This limitation is disheartening, as the general group’s membership has increased from one hundred, after the first month of its existence, to over nine hundred members presently. But the advantages of having the group as a fan page rather than a general group may outweigh the disadvantages. SAA Council and staff could advertise the new fan page’s existence through the A&A listserv, the SAA homepage, and official SAA publications, and thus may increase the membership of the SAA fan page much faster and to a higher number than that of the general group page.

Problems over the copyright and trademark of the Society of American Archivists’ name and logo will be eliminated entirely if the organization takes official control of the Facebook group. More SAA members who have Facebook accounts may join the SAA Facebook group if this happens, because the official logo of the organization could be displayed as the profile picture for the group. Official recognition and administration of the Facebook group can have positive effects on the group.

The author wonders whether the elimination or deletion of the SAA Facebook group would have any repercussions to group members, given the little activity that goes on in the group. Perhaps many members would not even notice the deletion of the group. Perhaps one or more members would restart the group entirely.

Membership in the SAA Facebook group is open to everyone, regardless of whether or not they are a member of the Society of American Archivists, regardless of if they are even archivists, records managers, or museum curators. Anyone can join and this may pose a difficulty in communicating with group members. Perhaps emails sent by the moderator over the past year to the members have gone largely unnoticed because some or many of the members of the SAA Facebook group are not members of SAA. The only way to ensure that only SAA members join the Facebook group are to, first, compare the unsorted list of members of the Facebook group with the membership lists of SAA, to drop as members those persons in the Facebook group who are not members of SAA, to change the membership from open to moderated (where the moderator must approve requests for membership), and to then add new members on a request basis. This is a lot of work, something the current moderator does not want to have to undertake. But the concerns of the SAA staff that the SAA Facebook group is being used by non-members can only be addressed in this manner.

Another SAA staff concern is that the SAA Facebook group is being used by its members to advertise events (conferences, workshops, seminars) of other archival organizations and not solely about SAA events. The only way to eliminate this “abuse” of the group Wall at this time is to post a warning to all members that the Facebook group is for the advertisement of only SAA events and not that of other archival groups. But because some or many archivists believe that SAA is a “parent” or “umbrella” organization over regional and state archival groups, such limitations may have negative effects. Members may see this as censorship or simply leave the group entirely.

To date, few former and current SAA Council members are members of the SAA Facebook group. Does this diminish the perceived importance or lack thereof of the SAA Facebook group? Getting the current president of SAA to join the Facebook group might have some bearing on the use of the group, but this is doubted by all members who have been approached individually by the moderator. Who is a member of the Facebook group seems less important to group members than what the members do with the group. But perhaps if an SAA staff member or Council member took over moderation of the group, the group may be validated and seen as more “official” than it currently is. The moderator has expressed great interest and has, in fact, encouraged SAA to take over administration of the group. But as of the date of the writing of this case study, this has not yet happened. Moderation presently takes less than one hour a year, so time constraints by SAA staff and Council will not be valid excuses for not taking over the moderation.


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1. To access the Society of American Archivists Facebook group page go to (accessed May 17, 2009). Note: to access this page, one must have a Facebook account and profile.

2. Tudor Williams and Brian Williams, “Adopting Social Media: Are We Leaders, Managers, or Followers?” Communication World (Jul/Aug 2008): 34.

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6. For the general groups page on Facebook go to (accessed May 17, 2009). To access this page, one must have a Facebook account and profile.

7. Josh Wiseman, “Facebook Group – Now We’re Talking,” Facebook blog, (accessed May 17, 2009).

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