Here are 10 things I’ve learnt from running an expat Facebook group (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 think 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 has just kindly swooped in to really get the ball rolling with the Pretoria group. I don’t live in Pretoria, I don’t know anybody in Pretoria – apart from Clara, who I’ve met once – so I have no idea how we ever got to 50 members, but now that she’s chivying things along group numbers and group chats are swelling wonderfully. Thanks Clara!
p.s. Pour les Francophones – il y a pour vous: Les Amis de Joburg.
p.p.s. I’m technically on holiday for the next few weeks, so I won’t be checking member requests very much (sorry) and the group will be quieter than usual until late July/early August when the international schools start their new academic year. Please bear with me (and just to clarify – I said bear with me, not BARE with me – no ‘hot sweaty teens’ or similar need apply please. Ta.