Founding and running and expat Facebook group has its perks and its pitfalls. Here are 10 things I’ve learnt from running Trailing Spouses Johannesburg (and yes, there are links at the end of the post).
Why I Founded an Expat Facebook Group
I am THAT woman. I don’t know how it happened, but I am the mug that runs our local expat Facebook group. I assumed there would be one (an expat Facebook group, not a mug) when I arrived in Johannesburg. After all, I’m sure every major city has had at least one of these groups for ages. I searched for it before I arrived, I asked around when I got here. I got tumbleweed. So eventually, I stepped up to the plate and set one up. It took all of 10 minutes to pick a name, write a description, add a photo, select the settings and add a few friends. I started off with about 10 people.
On the back of the initial 10 minutes that I invested, not much happened for the first couple of weeks. Then a lot happened. It’s become a bit of beast. A much needed and generally much appreciated beast, but a beast nonetheless.
Lesson 1: Facebook is a great way to run an expat group.
It’s a realtime forum. There’s no faffing about setting up accounts and passwords, because most people are already on Facebook. There are no meetings, budgets, venue bookings or catering costs. Essentially it’s both a community and an up to date mine of relevant information.
Lesson 2: Facebook is rubbish for managing messages and once people know who you are they will try any and all methods to contact you.
In addition to FB messages, I get sms’s, Whatsapps, emails, phone calls and even get accosted in the supermarket. Often it is to ask me to look out for their friend who they’ve told to join. Their friend may or may not ever join, but once they’ve told me, I am expected to remember the name indefinitely. Or they might be getting in touch to ask me to remove them from the group because they are leaving. Unfortunately, it’s often quicker to remove them than explaining to them how they can remove themselves.
Lesson 3: Group members will assume you are a technical wizard and ask you many questions.
“How do I stop group posts appearing in my personal feed?” “How do I find my other inbox (which is now called the filtered inbox by the way)?” “How do I add a friend?” “How do I delete a post?” It’s all very flattering as I’m anything but a techie. In fact, my husband is amazed that I am mysteriously able to run a Facebook group AND a blog. His mystification is a result of him knowingthat there are days when I can barely locate an email or install an app. In fact the clock in my car has been showing the wrong time for weeks. No idea. Usually, I don’t know the answer to these technical questions, so I find an answer and then share it with the group hoping that my job is done. My job IS done, until somebody asks the exact same question a week later, or until Facebook tweaks something and I have to figure out the new correct answer.
Lesson 4: Some group members will assume you are also An Anointed Oracle and message you with all sorts of random questions that should be put to the group (or Google), rather than directly to the group admin.
“Can you recommend a great hairdresser for blondes?” “Can you help me find a babysitter for my holiday to Mauritius?” Again, this is kind of flattering, but I set the group up precisely because there were an infinite number of things that I didn’t know and still don’t know and as there are an infinite number of things to know, that I will never know.
Lesson 5: People enjoy sharing.
Mostly, they share great information, tips, contacts and personal experiences and recommendations.
Lesson 6: You need rules.
Without rules the sharing quickly becomes oversharing. The newbie looking for a doctor or dentist gets bumped down the feed by often well meaning shares, opinions and blog posts, but also by people getting on their soapboxes to lecture us all about something or trying to use the group as a platform for free advertising.
Lesson 7: Not everybody grasps internet etiquette and safety.
If a group is closed the implication is that any personal information shared inside the group should be treated as confidential. However, there will almost always be someone who ignores this. Sharing e.g. a security alert from a public source is one thing, sharing a member’s personal details without their permission (phone number etc) isn’t a great idea, but unfortunately, from time to time it happens.
Lesson 8: You can’t please everybody.
“You should change the group name.” “My friend is lovely, they are not eligible to join, but you should add them anyway.” “My friend asked to join 5 minutes ago, why haven’t you added them yet?” “Why don’t you split the group and run it as two groups – one as a forum, one for classifieds?” “You should have one day a week for advertising.”
Lesson 9: You need to screen new members.
People will lie to get into a good group. People will also lie to get their friends into a good group. True!
Lesson 10: The internet is a scary place (which is the another reason you need to screen people wanting to join).
There are Facebookers in the Philippines with 18436 friends who are trying to sell t-shirts to the entire population of the internet. There are various individuals who are members of groups with names like ‘Hot Sweaty Teens’ (or in fact purport to be – but are most very probably not – hot sweaty teens themselves, based on their dubious scantily clad profile pictures) and are clearly looking for some action. Others appear to run pyramid schemes or shady property empires. The list of undesirables goes on. Requests from such accounts are easily ignored or blocked, but it’s almost guaranteed that at some point there will be at least one slightly unhinged individual who will be entirely eligible to join the group and the minute you let them in will turn rogue and insist that they can post WHATEVER they like because ‘I am a member of the group’. Fortunately, a good group self regulates and often without too much interference from the Admin, such members will usually (thankfully) disappear.
How to Join? Keep Reading
So yes, I’ve learned a lot. It’s a time consuming and sometimes deeply frustrating thing to manage and from time to time I do have a little rant (see points 2-4 and 6-10 above). I also sometimes point out to people that a) I don’t get paid to do this and that b) I run it in my spare time and I don’t live on the internet with 24 hour availability to monitor and action everything.
However, I know that the very vast majority appreciate the group and play by the rules which makes it worthwhile, particularly knowing that for a transient community far from home such an expat group can be a lifeline.
- Trailing Spouses Johannesburg and sister group Pretoria Expats are aimed at the transient corporate and diplomatic expat community, primarily at the Trailing Spouses who have followed their partners here and are left to sort out the day to day everything of surviving and then thriving in a new country on a short term contract basis. I run the Jo’burg group and Clara Wiggins from Expat Partner’s Survival Guide kindly swooped in to really get the ball rolling with the Pretoria group. I’ve never lived in Pretoria, I didn’t know anybody in Pretoria – apart from Clara, who I met once – so I have no idea how we ever got to 50 members, but once she started chivying things along, group numbers and group chats swelled wonderfully. Thanks Clara!
- Update 2020: Both groups remain active. Mira Molenkamp is the current admin of Trailing Spouses Johannesburg and Anne Napier runs the Pretoria Group.
- Pour les Francophones de Joburg – il y a pour vous: Les Amis de Joburg.
- If you’re not familiar with or dislike the Trailing Spouse moniker, discover some Trailing Spouse synonyms here.
12 thoughts on “Running an Expat Facebook Group: 10 Lessons”
I don’t run a Facebook group, but a lot of this is very familiar to me as a blogger who caters to expats. A very enjoyable read — thank you. And even though I’m not technically a trailing spouse, I’m going to try to join. I won’t bug you if you don’t accept me though 🙂 🙂
At last! I thought you’d never ask. Obviously I will have to thoroughly screen your profile first ;-). Only this morning I had ‘The World’s Best Sangoma’ asking to join, but as he was neither a trailing spouse nor an expat I sadly had to decline the request.
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I have a love hate relationship with our local expat Facebook group. Sometimes it’s extremely useful for finding and sharing info, others it seems petty and gossipy and makes me want to remove myself all together. Glad I don’t run it though!
Yes, things can get a little heated, but other members are quite protective of the group and are great at letting me know if anything inappropriate is going on so that I can deal with it before it gets out of hand. Mostly everyone has been really friendly and helpful though. I think the usefulness of the group also depends on where you are and how tight knit the expat community is. The tougher the posting (whether it’s a challenging place to live, if there are particular security concerns or a major language/cultural barrier) the more expats will band together and help one another.
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So far I am really enjoying running the Pretoria group but it is still small enough to be manageable. I doubt it will ever get to the size of the Joburg one but I am hoping it get s alittle bigger to be able to spread the info out a bit 🙂
I’m sure the Pretoria group will grow. I seem to remember 50 members was the critical mass for the Joburg group for it to become a thing and until then I would post something everyday and mention it to everybody I came across. So come August, I have a feeling this one will really get off the ground mainly as you are now actively managing what’s going on.
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Thorough entertaining read. So true. Enjoy your well deserved break. We do appreciate you Nicola x
Thanks Lara. Glad you enjoyed reading.
I guess starting a new group sounds like a great idea. Las year, I joined the Nairobi expat’s group (or so I thought I was doing) but then I discovered there were many other nairobi groups!!! Here, every nationality has its own group, you’ve got groups for selling/buying second-hand stuff, groups for partying, groups for everything! It’s just crazy… specially when people ignore rules and they do what they want. The worst of all is all those locals trying to sell you everything they can… it must definitely be a hard job! So congrats for your committement 😉
Thanks Soso 🙂 . Your English is infinitely better than my French! How’s Nairobi as a place to live? I suppose it’s better to have a choice of Facebook groups than none at all.
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Yes, you are right always better to have achoice! This is our first expatriation and also the first in Africa. Nairobi is as nice as a big african metropolis can be, so a very big changement for us coming from a city as sophisticated as Paris ;-). Life is not that difficult here, you can find almost everything you need for a simple and honest life. The only issue here is corruption in every level of life that you can imagine. Or perhaps you can never image, you have to live here to see it! Personal security is also a big issue here, and it is psychologically exhausting. But I think you know what I am talking about, these problems seem to be also very common in South Africa, right?
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