American Birding Podcast



Changing the World: the ABA at the First Facebook Communities Summit

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg preaches the virtues of community, with the ABA Rare Bird Alert Facebook Group featured on the screen behind him

The experience, or at least the run up to it, was not unlike fishing. First, you feel a tap. Then maybe nothing for a while. Then you think you might have hooked something but you’re not completely sure until…yes, yes, you have got something on the line. But what, exactly? Hmmm…don’t wanna jinx it but it’s actually feeling like it might be kinda big. Eh, maybe I’ve just hooked an old tire or…NO, I’ve definitely got something. Something. Yes, something. But what? Oh man, it’s getting close to the surface…please don’t let it throw the hook or break the line. OK, it’s coming up, it’s coming up, it’s, it’s–OHMYGAWD!!!, will you look at THAT??!!! WOW! Somebody get a net!

That was a bit what it was like for me, Liz, and Greg Neise in the weeks and hours leading up to the first-ever Facebook Communities Summit, which took place in Chicago from 21-23 June 2017. First, there was word of a gathering of administrators of Facebook groups, and an invitation to apply to have your group included, delivered via Facebook itself. Greg and Liz responded, offering 2 of the ABA’s Facebook groups, ABA Rare Bird Alert and What’s This Bird?

It became clear that our application (or applications?) were successful and that we were invited to participate in the event on Facebook’s dime, provided we could get ourselves to Chicago, an especially easy task for Greg, a lifelong Chicagoan. Tantalizing details began to emerge–yes, Mark Zuckerburg would be there–but we still arrived with more questions than answers about exactly what we were getting into, where it was happening, who was attending, and so on.

From the moment we arrived at the conference hotel in Chicago, things began to move quickly and in exciting and intriguing ways. By the time we got off the busses at the kickoff dinner venue, it was clear that something pretty major was underway. There was an amazing variety of people, both Facebook employees and especially, the admins of other groups. Between bites of burgers, poke, gelato, and other edibles we introduced ourselves, compared notes, and tried to figure out exactly what we were attending and why we had been asked.

Upon our return to the hotel, there was a goodie bag filled with everything from little baggies of trail mix to a lavender eye pillow. There was also a name badge complete with schedule on the reverse and an intriguing little card that was our first real summary of how Facebook was looking at us and our groups.

Part of the Facebook swag bag, augmented by one of Liz’s “I am the ABA” buttons

Under the headline “A Look Back at a Year in ABA Rare Bird Alert,” it said:

As of 9-Jun-2017 there were 12,989 members in the group

They have:

• Contributed 1,010 posts and photos

• Connected with each other through 7,632 comments

• And reacted 100,449 times! WOW! ?

Here’s to your engaging and thriving community!

Posts, Photos, Comments, Reactions measured between

June 1, 2016-May 31, 2017

Thursday morning, we were bussed–there were obviously a few hundred of us–to a downtown warehouse space that had been kept quite literally under wraps. Passing through friendly but thorough security, we again had a sense of joining a very diverse collection of people with a diverse collection of interests and causes. People were finding there way to various gathering places, queuing for espresso drinks, and as this was a Facebook summit after all, pausing for photos and selfies everywhere.

We didn’t know it at the time, but these 3 women would soon be onstage in a panel discussion with Mark Zuckerburg

I was peeled off into an informal green room area, as it had been decided that I might be called upon to be recognized, perhaps even speak, during the keynote presentation. Then it was go time. Along with about half  a dozen other green room residents I was ushered into a portion of the space that had been made into a TV studio. And, WOW! ?, there was a reserved seat for me in the front row!

The rest of the admins were seated, and we all waited, many of us posting messages via Facebook exhorting our friends, families, and followers to tune in to the promised live stream on Mark Zuckerberg’s wall. We didn’t have to wait long. The lights came up and out walked Mark Zuckerberg in the flesh.

I took this with my cell phone. No zoom. He was really, really close.

It was exiting, to say the least, to have someone who has had such influence on so many people standing and talking just a couple of feet away. And kind of comforting, too. He came across as earnest, impassioned, and, well, likable. Pretty far from the portrayal in The Social Network. Mostly, he seemed like a new Dad acutely concerned about the world his daughters–he and his wife are expecting a second soon–would inherit. The world that all of us would inherit, actually.

He spoke for half an hour. During that time, he announced new tools to help group admins do our jobs better. Perhaps most strikingly, he announced Facebook was, right now, changing its mission and doing so for the first time in company history. The old mission statement, “Make the world more open and connected,” was being superseded by one that underlined the leading role he envisions for Facebook Groups in the company’s future, “bring the world closer together.”

He didn’t call on me, nor did I expect him to, but I was pretty thrilled to hear him work us birders directly into his text as he drove home his ultimate point:

“That’s the power of the communities you’re building. You may think you’re just creating a space for new moms, or bird watchers, or locksmiths. But when you give people a way to connect and a sense of support, it can lead to important changes. We all have the power to be leaders. And if enough of us work to build community and bring people closer together, we just might change the world.”

That was cool.

You can find the text of Mark’s speech here, or watch them in the video embedded below.

Then Zuckerberg left the stage and was replaced by Chris Cox, Facebook’s Chief Product Officer.

When Chris walked out, I really started to get a little nervous. Not because of anything he was saying or doing. He, like Zuckerberg, seemed both at ease and engaged. My nerves were sizzling because I knew that it was during Cox’s portion of the keynote that I might be called upon to rise and be recognized, perhaps to speak. The only thing scarier than the thought of being handed a mic at that point was the thought of not being handed a mic. The other folks who were being asked to speak all seemed to have them, why didn’t I? Oh well, it’ll happen how it happens.

Four blocks appeared on the screen behind Chris, each blurred out a bit. But clearly the one on the far right was meant to represent us–it was recognizably the cover photo of ABA Rare Bird Alert, featuring the Amazon Kingfisher found by Jeff Bouton at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in 2013. The word “CULTURE” appeared over it in white. Man! Was he really going to use us to talk about culture? Wow. Why don’t I have a mic?

Three other admins spoke eloquently and movingly about the work that their groups did. Gay Fathers, struggling to raise families in a sometimes hostile world, Meg’s Miles Supporters, a community that formed around a remarkable woman after her tragic death, determined to do good works in her name, and the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a group dedicated to bringing Jewish and Muslim women together–each group was presented and held up as an exemplar of identity, of need, of voice.

At this point, the thoughts running through my mind included: 1) Man, these groups and their leaders are amazing! 2) The groups are all so serious–why would they want to hear from birders? On culture, no less! 3) What on Earth am I going to say? 4) Everybody else has a mic–how come I don’t have a mic?

Suddenly, oh so suddenly, a tech crawled up the aisle and pressed a microphone into my hand. Chris turned to me and said, “And last, culture. Is Jeffrey here?”

I rose and spoke doing my best to keep the tone light, make a few serious points, and represent our birding community well. You can judge for yourself how I did. The entire hour long video is worth your time, but if you want to skip to my part, it begins at about 44:20.

Then Mark Zuckerberg reappeared and led a panel discussion with the three women I had snapped a photo of on the way in, admins of groups for St. Louis area Moms, Nigerian women, and Hispanic Military Spouses. I was still in a kind of happy shock.

Over the balance of that day and through the next, we got to interact with all these people and many more. It was wonderful to feel the energy and commitment of all these very different people and get to know them a bit. It was also incredibly gratifying to experience the warm reception that Greg, Liz, and I got as birders and as ABA representatives. People were genuinely curious about our community and very open in most cases to hearing about it. It was a great reminder that we as birders needn’t be wallflowers. On the contrary, we need to be active evangelists for birding, even in places where we traditionally have not. Especially in those places. We really have something remarkable in our birding community, something truly valuable that deserves to be shared with others, even those who themselves may not become active birders.

I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of all the cool things we saw, learned, and experienced during the summit. If you have questions, feel free to ask them in the comments. Also, be on the lookout–soon–for an episode of the American Birding Podcast where Greg, Liz, and I will share some other stories and observations from the summit.

Finally, I’d like to thank all the ABA family, on Facebook and off, for all that you contribute to making the birding community the wonder that it is. It was truly an honor and a thrill to represent you at this event. Thanks, too, to Facebook, for giving birders a new set of tools to help us do what we’ve always done in new and often better ways and to reach out to brand new audience. Bird by bird, and birder by birder, we really are changing the world.