Community Psychology in the Cloud: How One CP Practitioner Uses the Practice Competencies to Work in Everyone’s Community

photograph of Jessica Drum
Jessica Drum

Dr. Jessica Drum took what might be considered by some as a non-traditional road when she graduated from Wichita State University’s Community Psychology Doctoral Program in 2016, but it has been an extraordinary opportunity to use community psychology practice and principles on a stage that can hardly get any larger: Facebook.

 Nicole Freund

*All columns are available online, at https://www.scra27.org/publications/tcp/

Facebook is simultaneously no one’s community and everyone’s community, and that platform has given Dr. Drum a unique opening to empower its users and bring otherwise unheard voices to the eyes and ears of decision-makers. The following interview allows Dr. Drum to tell readers in her own words the role community psychology plays in her practice work as she strives to make this virtual “every community” the best it can be for its users.

Nicole Freund (NF): How would you describe your work at FB?

Jessica Drum (JD): I work as a lead user experience researcher at Facebook. I work on the Product Foundation Team within the Facebook App organization. My job is to understand the holistic app experience. So, while many teams focus in on the use of a specific feature within Facebook, such as Groups, Stories, Events, etc., we know that people don’t think of Facebook in these isolated ways; therefore, it’s important to understand how the experience looks and feels holistically. Much of my focus has been on how we organize the hierarchy of the app to ensure people can navigate to the things that are most important to them. I recently wrote an article on the Facebook Research medium blog about many of the methods I used to understand this. (To read Dr. Drum’s blog, visit: https://medium.com/facebook-research/researchfinds-a-way-a97120f40ff1).

NF: FB is the largest virtual community in the world. How does CP inform your work similarly to and how differently  from the way it might inform work in more local non-virtual communities?

JD: Community Psychology is so ingrained into the way that I think that I would say it informs everything I do. One major way is how I must approach my research from an ecological perspective and consider the many diverse  backgrounds that are a part of our community. People from all different walks of life, during all different stages of their lives use Facebook; and they use Facebook under many different conditions, on many different types of devices, for many different use cases, with variable access to data or wireless internet access. With that being said, how does one create a solution for a community while taking into consideration all of these different variables? It’s important when tackling a problem to understand which of those variables are most important for consideration and why. I think considering the various levels of experiences and situations has always been part of what community psychologists do, including within local non-virtual communities, but the scale in which I must think about these things is much broader at Facebook.

“My favorite part of my work is knowing that every study I do will impact people. [. . .] More than two billion people use Facebook and it plays such a huge role in people’s lives and in so many different ways. My role as a researcher is to bring their voices to the table so that we ensure we are meeting their needs and addressing their concerns, so we can build a better platform.”

NF: What CP Practice Competencies do you use most and how?

JD: I already mentioned ecological perspectives is a big one, but program evaluation is another huge part of what I do. Every week, I’m having conversations about how we can measure the impact of something we build. Imagine, we’ve built a new feature in Facebook that we think people will find valuable. Historically in tech, we might say:
“Okay let’s look at the data of what percent of people click on this thing.” But, Facebook’s thinking on this has evolved. Clicking on something doesn’t necessarily mean that a person finds value in it. Maybe a person accidentally clicked on it because it’s in the middle of the screen where they typically rest their thumb. Maybe they clicked on it because it had a red badge on it, and they just wanted to get rid of it. In addition, not clicking on something doesn’t mean a person doesn’t find it valuable. Maybe nobody is clicking it, but people feel safer on Facebook knowing that they have the ability to click on the feature if and when they want to. These things we don’t know by just looking at click through rates. This is where research and program evaluation come in. What is the specific value that the feature we are building is supposed to provide to our community, and how do we measure that it’s actually doing this?

NF: What’s the biggest surprise/challenge you’ve encountered practicing CP in a nonacademic setting?

JD: Teaching people who come from very different backgrounds (i.e design, engineering, etc.) about research theories is actually really, really hard. When you’re in academia everyone thinks about theory. Especially in an applied community psychology program, the links between theory and program development are quite easy to understand. This is not the case in a non-academic setting and it’s super important to be able to summarize and
translate theory in a way that makes sense to people who don’t come from that background. I can recall when I first came to Facebook presenting on a really complicated public health theory to my new team. The feedback I got afterwards was: “I think I understand what this means, but the links of what we should do about this are not super clear. Can you ‘Facebook-ify’ this a bit?” I took a step back, simplified the theory, rebranded it with terms that people at the company were more familiar with (i.e Facebook-ified it) and my colleagues understood it much more easily. Making research theory digestible for a non-academic audience is much more challenging than I had expected.

NF: What advice do you have for CP students about pursuing CP practice work (especially those who may not pursue a PhD)?

JD: For all practice research that you design, consider these three questions:

  • What is the research question?
  • Why is it important to answer?
  • What will happen when you get the answer?

If you don’t feel confident in your answers to those three questions, the study you’re thinking about may not be the right one to pursue. You may be either asking the wrong research question or be designing the study in a way that won’t lead to actual impact. There is a lot in Dr. Drum’s reactions to these questions that will likely resonate with many community psychology practitioners: translating theories to parties unfamiliar with their application,  contextualizing the reasons for investigating an outcome, working through multiple levels of ecological context to reveal problems and solutions. The work that Dr. Drum does for participants in this virtual community is really just a technical deviation from more localized community work; the process is similar in many respects. Given the power of Facebook in the lives of so many people, ensuring everyone has equal ability to use it for their needs is an enormous and evolving endeavor that should be informed by as many community psychologists as possible. It is certainly a path to practicing community psychology that perhaps many students would not automatically think to work towards, but as the US and other places around the world become more dependent on technology, it is a path where practicing CP is increasingly important. “I think all community psychologists are idealistic,” said Drum. “We all do what we do because we want to be able to empower people, help people, and positively impact the world. I just can’t think of a better place to work where I get the opportunity to do this.”

NOTE: Since this interview, Dr. Drum was promoted to a managerial role and now leads a team of researchers doing work similar to that described here.

By Nicole Freund, and Jessica Drum