Facebook has been in the crosshairs of French regulators, and the social network itself has admitted it could be harmful for some users. But one community offers a reprieve. "Wanted" is the largest Facebook group in France, where people regularly ask, and receive, advice and support.
Wanted's founders could have used the group's success and size to make money.
Instead, they are trying to foster a sense of solidarity that people are clearly craving, on and offline.
A few weeks ago a Facebook a message appeared in the Wanted Paris group, a kind of message in a bottle: Please help my 91-year-old grandfather find his lost childhood friend.
The poster, a woman named Oriana, gave the person's name and age and explained that her grandfather knew him when they were kids in Tunisia. Not much happened after the post.
“There were many reactions, likes, and “up” written in the comments, to push the post into people's news feed,” says Oriana. But nothing concrete.
A week and a half later she got a private message. It was the son of her father's long-lost friend. They spoke on the phone, and then she called her grandfather.
“I called my grandfather to tell him, I found him! I have a phone number. And they got back into contact.”
It was relatively easy, though perhaps not surprising, given that the group has about 460,000 members, and the community as a whole counts about 860,000 in 80+ groups around France.
Magic of the network
Oriana's story is not unique, says Sixtine Perussel, Wanted's community leader. People use the groups to look for people, but also items, forgotten on trains, or stolen.
“Here is one on the Marseille community,” she says, scrolling through Facebook on her computer. “Someone stole a wheelchair out on the street, which means the disabled woman was stuck in her apartment. A friend of hers posted a message.”
The message got over 40 comments, and within 12 hours the wheelchair was found: “That's the magic of the network,” says Perussel.
People ask for tips on places to live or restaurant recommendations, or solicit donations for charity causes, or offer personal items or tickets for sale. Sometimes they want advice.
“This one is a woman who says she loves to read and is asking for advice for a good electronic reader. It got 27 comments,” says Perussel.
There's a signature Wanted post: Someone posts a headshot or a family photo and asks for the background to be cleaned up or someone to be Photoshopped out of the image. Members then start playing around, adding in people, superimposing heads.
The community's co-founder, Jeremie Ballarin, says they wondered at first if these kinds of posts should be banned, but members said to leave them, because they were so funny.
And among the dozens – sometimes hundreds – of comments and modifications on the editing requests, the original photo always gets edited by someone.
“There are people who take the photo, load it into Photoshop and do the edits. That's someone who could have been doing something completely different during that time,” says Ballarin, amazed.
From bar tips to solidarity
He remains surprised by the evolution of Wanted, which had very different goals when he and two friends started it in 2011. They had all just moved to Paris, and were looking for tips.
“We didn't know what bars to go to. We didn't know where to find roommates. So we created a group and invited people from our personal networks, who knew Paris, to exchange advice,” he says.
The initial group of about 600 grew quickly, as friends added friends and invited others. By 2013 Wanted Paris had thousands of members, and posts were starting to change, with more people looking for input on personal situations than asking for restaurant recommendations.
And then came the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, and members used the group to look for missing people and offer help. Media stories highlighted Wanted's role in the attacks' aftermath, which attracted even more members. Ballarin and his two friends were surprised at the direction the group was taking, but he says they embraced it.
With so many members, they could have monetised it. But early on they banned advertisements and promotions. Instead, they liked the emergence of solidarity.
They opened other groups in other cities, and the personal project started to become more of a mission. They came up with the idea of opening a Wanted café, which would allow them to quit their jobs and focus on managing the community, while also providing a space where people can meet in real life, away from Facebook.
In Real Life
In September 2018 they opened the Wanted Cafe in Bordeaux, their home town. It serves food and drinks and a good dose of solidarity.
Customers are offered loyalty cards, and after their ninth paid meal, a tenth is offered “suspended” to someone in need. There are also “suspended” cups of coffee, where someone pays for a coffee that someone else can order later.
Around the time the cafe opened, things were moving in Facebook, which was starting to pay increasing attention to groups. Wanted entered a competition to receive funding, and at the end of 2018, they received a million dollar grant to continue developing the community.
The money allowed them to hire staff, and start thinking of expanding, opening another Wanted Cafe in Paris, and explore opening other mixed-use sites.
For Ballarin, the community is driven by people looking for connections on an individual level.
“We are in a country with a real sense of community and public service. That's very French. The idea that the community must be there for others,” he says. But that communal support often comes through institutions.
Through Wanted, “people are saying: we have to help others, not through institutions. Not through social services. We need to be there for others, full stop. We are used to going through the state: the welfare state. Maybe now people want to skip that, just help each other.”
This story was produced for the Spotlight on France podcast.