People engage in social media for several purposes. Social media enable people to educate about topics they are interested in, topics to which getting access has been difficult in the past, and topics they learn about only through social media. One topic that is gaining interest recently is that of financial independence for women. In the past, women weren’t allowed or didn’t want to take care of their finances: money, investment, and finances were men’s business. Today, the blogger Natascha Wegelin – better known by her alias “Madame Moneypenny” – empowers women to deal with their finances and to achieve financial independence. Financial independence describes the state in which one is independent of other entities and has gathered so much money, through investments or passive income, that work is not necessary anymore (Mann, 2020). As a result of Wegelin’s online activities on several social platforms, she could generate a Facebook group of approximately 90.000 members.
In this paper I am going to investigate the Facebook group “Madame Moneypenny – financial independence for women” by using digital ethnography and the qualitative interview. I will claim that the community has evolved into a community of practice. Moreover, I will point out that social media provide the platform and therefore the possibility for people to share their knowledge on less common topics. When several people learn about the topic and share the interest, a community forms. Doing this research is socially and academically relevant because it shows how social media platforms and online groups on Facebook can serve as platforms for valuable content, education, and fruitful discussions.
To answer my research question, I will make use of digital ethnography. I chose this method because digital ethnography allows close observation of the research objects (Hine, 2017). Hine explains that this form of research enables to better understand and experience the community in question. Through the immersion into the field, researchers can develop a profound and embodied knowledge of the topic. Pink (2016) adds that in digital contexts, the interaction is often mediated: Researchers can use digital methods and watch the community online, digitally track them, or observe their social media practices. However, there are also points of criticism concerning digital ethnography: As the research method is flexible and open, studies cannot be replicated and cannot give representative statements (Wenz, 2020).
Even though there are some limitations concerning the research method, digital ethnography is most suitable to answer my research question. It allows me to closely observe the online activities of the community and get an in-depth understanding of it. I complete my digital ethnography by conducting a qualitative interview.
According to Rubin and Rubin (2012), the term qualitative interview describes an in-depth method of getting information from the interviewee. The aim is to get deep insights into experiences and narratives. To achieve this, the interviewer provides open-ended questions so interviewees can respond however they prefer. Lastly, they explain, the prepared set of questions can be asked flexibly – the wording can be changed, questions can be skipped, postponed, and new probe questions can be formulated.
I conducted a qualitative interview with a member of the Madame Moneypenny community that has been part of the community for 1,5 years via Google Hangouts. According to the ethical guidelines of the Association of Internet Researchers I protect the privacy of my interviewee by anonymizing her personal data and obtained her consent to use her answers in this paper (Franzke et. al, 2019). After I conducted the interview, I transcribed the recorded conversation and coded it into seven different categories.
After the description of my research question and the methodology, I will continue reviewing important literature and frameworks: the relevance of social media in online education, communities of practice, and technomoral change. Several authors describe the function of social media as educational (Balkin & Sonnevend, 2016, p.11; Dron & Anderson, 2014, p. 4). Users actively seek information on social platforms (Balkin & Sonnevend p. 20) and learn from the online content intentionally but also unintentionally (Dron and Anderson p.4).
The aspect of community participation is an important part of the experience of online education via social platforms (Balkin & Sonnevend, 2016). The social platforms enable their users to share, to connect, to discuss, and to “construct knowledge among collections of learners and “teachers”” (Dron and Anderson, 2014, p. 4). However, the term “teacher” is used for any content creator that makes his knowledge accessible for others to learn from. What characterizes these forms of social software is that they “allow people to interact and collaborate online or that aggregates the actions of networked users” (Dron & Anderson, 2014, p. 9). Moreover, they enable users to interact in new ways which results in a high collaboration where users can help and learn from each other. The authors add that learning communities can profit from giving and receiving feedback from other members of the learning communities. This form of informal, online learning is embedded into the daily routines of the people rather than scheduled at specific times and places and originates from external or internal motivation. Moreover, they explain how social media facilitate content creation, the search for answers and solutions to problems, and to create and receive challenges (Dron & Anderson, 2014). Another great advantage of learning through social media is that everyone can get access to the knowledge of the people posting educational content on these platforms (Balkin & Sonnevend, 2016).
The anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (2015) introduced the term “communities of practice” (p. 4). It describes a group of people who share an interest in the same domain. The members of this group regularly interact with each other and engage in collective learning and the aspiration to constantly learn and getting better. However, Wenger (2015) explains, not all communities can be characterized as communities of practice: three criteria must be fulfilled. Firstly, the domain. The members of the group need to share an interest in the same domain. The interest results in knowledge of the topic that is unique to the members of the group. Secondly, the community. Because of their shared interest, the group members collectively participate in discussions, give each other advice, and share and distribute their information and knowledge about the domain. They learn from each other. Thirdly, the practice. People that engage in communities of practice are active members of their community. They take part in shared practices and through their shared practices a “repertoire of resources” (Wenger, 2015, p. 2) can form. This repertoire of resources can include stories, tools, experiences.
Francesco Schiavone (2014) explains that for communities of practice social interaction is crucial. He then summarizes seven further principles that communities of practice should adhere to to make the social interaction fruitful. These categories suggest that the design and the organization of the community changes during the time and members should regularly consider adapting new perspectives to guarantee an effective learning environment. Moreover, communities of practice show three different levels of participation. First, a small core group in which community coordinators participate. Second, an active group. Third, rather passive and peripheral members. The combination of “familiarity and excitement” (Schiavone, 2014, p. 28) enables a successful and comfortable learning environment where members can establish new contacts. Furthermore, communities are valuable to their members in the sense that they give solutions to problems or other benefits. Lastly, he states, there are regular online or offline meetings to make the community more vivid.
The last important concept in this paper is that of technomoral change. According to Swierstra (2015), technomoral change describes the relationship between technology and morality and the phenomenon that they mutually influence each other. By doing this, technologies can change the world, solve and redefine old problems, create new problems, and destabilize moral values. Moreover, technologies always affect changes in practices and alter our perspective of our world, other humans, and ourselves. These changes are called “soft impacts” (Swierstra. 2015, p. 13).
During my fieldwork, I became part of the Facebook group. I paid attention to the structure of the group, to the discussions, and how the members engage with each other. I am going to present the data of my observations during my fieldwork, combine it with the insights of my online interview, and connect it to my analysis.
My first impression of the group was that the group is well organized. As the Facebook group is closed, only members of the group can read posts or participate in discussions. To join the group potential members need to send a request and explain how they found out about the group. At this stage, the potential member is already confronted with ten basic group rules. These include instructions about being polite and the notice that inappropriate posts and comments should be reported. There are three administrators and three moderators. They accept requests to the group and are in charge of the approval of posts before they are released. Moderators and several administrators are important for a big group like the Madame Moneypenny Facebook group. There are also offline and several online meetings. The offline meetings are set in different cities in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. My interviewee hasn’t yet attended one of these meetings but considers doing it in the future as it might allow her to discuss topics she would feel uncomfortable posting publicly in the group.
At this point, the community counts 92.905 members. However, the group is in steady growth. For comparison: On October 13th there were 92.025 members. The community consists exclusively of women. My interviewee assesses the constellation of members as follows:
I would say the members are from every age group and every professional group – at least from what you learn from the posts: So, as well women that are already retired as women that are at the beginning of their twenties. (anonymous interviewee, 13th October 2020)
Moreover, some members already have profound knowledge about the discussed topics of finances and career. Members with less knowledge can profit from them. Furthermore, the members of the Facebook group refer to each other as “Moneypennies”. By doing this, they create a sense of belonging to the community.
Unsurprisingly, the gender aspect is a major theme in the community. This is already indicated in the name of the group “Madame Moneypenny – financial independence for women”. Men’s requests to join the group will not be accepted. Moreover, the importance of the gender aspect is underlined at the “about” section of the group:
This group is for all women that want to achieve financial independence. The group aims to support women to take care of their finances as well as their financial success. We encourage women to take care of this themselves rather than just giving it to their husbands, the state, or their employers […]Also, gender-specific posts that help to counteract the stereotypes (which we encounter regularly in a men-dominated field as finances and money) are welcome.” (Facebook group “Madame Moneypenny – financial independence for women”)
The importance of the gender aspect is also visible in the interview. My interviewee explains that men are rather told what to do with their finances and how to multiply their money than women. For her, the fact that the resources of Madame Moneypenny on social media and the Facebook group are solely directed and addressed to women motivates and encourages them to engage with topics of finances. Furthermore, she feels that because there are only women in the group members feel more comfortable talking about personal matters.
When asked whether she thinks that the community is so big because Madame Moneypenny is addressed to women only, she responded:
If it was for women just as common as for men, then it would have been spread over several things and there are now more and more financial blogs, which are tailored to women, they catch up now and know that there is such a gap but I mean, she was one of the first to stand out a bit, that’s how the large number comes about. (anonymous interviewee, 13th October 2020)
4.4. Valuable interaction
Next to the gender aspect, the ongoing discussions are characteristic for the group and the community of Madame Moneypenny. Mostly, discussions start with a personal story and a question related to that, questions about investments, members sharing their thought about something, or providing helpful tools or resources. These posts are shared very frequently, and members comment on posts immediately. People give advice or criticize the original post. Mostly, the discussions are vivid, and many people engage in the discussions. I clustered the major topics of discussions into different categories: Firstly, career advice (including job search, applications, salary negotiation, parental leave, application and pregnancy, depression in the job as well as topics of university and other further education); secondly, finances (including investments, ETF, taxes, and measures for retirement provisions); thirdly, divorces/marriage/relationship from a financial point of view.
The discussions are also the reason why for my interviewee the Facebook group is the most valuable resource Madame Moneypenny offers: “Especially because it is so interactive, that you get an answer immediately to your question. You see that you are not alone and that some people have the same problems as you.” (anonymous interviewee, 13th October 2020)
I think the group is special because it is very nice how many people are commenting on the posts. I enjoy seeing when someone posts a long story, people read it and dedicate their time to give detailed answers, you tell so private things to help somebody, that is cool. (anonymous interviewee, 13th October 2020)
The members motivate each other to achieve their shared goal of financial independence. This is done by discussions but also by “success posts”. In success posts, Moneypennies explain, for example, how they overcame debts or how they started a new successful business. Moreover, they motivate each other through challenges – for example, the 5 € challenge. Every time someone receives 5 € she saves the money. Eventually, one saved a good amount of money which can be used for investments.
The Moneypennies also share useful resources. This includes links to helpful articles but also spreadsheets including tips for sustainable fonds, savings plans, savings rates, and ideas for passive income as well as useful PDF files.
What can be learned by the discussions, the about text of the group, and my interviewee’s response is that Madame Moneypennies’ activities on social media and the Madame Moneypenny group fill a gap. This gap concerns the education of women regarding topics of finances and investment. My interviewee explains: “Through social media, I really learned about things I haven’t heard before, that is why it is a good source.“ This quote underlines the importance of social media in the process of awareness of the topic and its significance. Because of this educational gap, my interviewee thinks the Facebook group has become so popular:
Because the topic is not discussed so much otherwise. Because it’s a good opportunity to exchange ideas and learn more. And if you look at how many people are really in there, you can see what kind of need for talking is there. And that this is otherwise simply not followed up, especially with young women. Because you are told “If you have a husband then you do it somehow in marriage or so and that’s good”. (anonymous interviewee, 13th October 2020)
The Facebook group also changed the mindset of my interviewee:
I have never been involved in investing or anything like that before. People always tell you that investing is only for rich people and if you have a lot of money then you take care of it. It is not communicated that even small money makes a difference. That has changed for me. (anonymous interviewee, 13th October 2020)
The results indicate that social media enable users to get insights into new topics and new interests. It can give ideas about topics people never heard of before and it can fill educational gaps and empower people to engage with unfamiliar topics. The Facebook group can then provide a smart platform on which people can connect and share rare resources.
The purpose of the present study was to investigate the Facebook group “Madame Moneypenny – financial independence for women” to find out what role social media play in online education, how online education can lead to the formation of communities, and to learn whether the community is a community of practice.
To begin, Etienne Wenger introduced three important criteria that communities must adhere to to be assessed as communities of practice. The results show that “Madame Moneypenny – financial independence for women” fulfils these requirements: First, the members of the group share an interest in the same domain: Finances and financial independence. Second, the community shows collective discussions. The members of the community advise each other and distribute knowledge about the domain. It is the central practice of the Facebook group. Third, they engage in shared practices. These include discussions and the practice of investment. The community also provides a “repertoire of resources” (Wenger, 2015, p. 2). This repertoire developed from the shared stories in the discussions, the success stories, and the collection of links, spreadsheets, and pdfs. Moreover, members can use the search bar to look for relevant topics that have already been discussed. So, they have access to a whole range of opinions, stories, tools, and advice stored in the group. Furthermore, there is a small core group in which community coordinators participate: the moderators and the administrators. There is an active group that engages actively in discussions, and there are peripheral members that are passive members of the community. Lastly, the community offers its members regular online and offline meetings.
Regarding Swierstras notion of technomoral change and the role of social media in online education, the community of practice “Madame Moneypenny – financial independence for women” was made possible by technology, the internet, social media, and Facebook specifically. Facebook is providing the platform for Madame Moneypenny to publish her thoughts and knowledge about financial independence. More women learn about it and join the group. By doing this she contributes to the solution of an old problem: Men claiming responsibility for the finances of their women and women willingly giving them this responsibility. The different social media platforms enabled Wegelin to act as a teacher and made it possible for users to share, to connect, to discuss, and to move towards more independence from men.
To conclude, social media and especially Facebook enabled Wegelin to distribute her knowledge and know-how. Because she adapts her communication directly to women, she achieved that more women are dealing with their finances and financial independence. Through her social media activities, she filled the gap in education on finances for women. She gives the topic awareness so that women can profit from it. Her social media accounts and especially the Facebook group then provide valuable platforms. Because the topic is still little discussed, the Facebook group is especially valuable for women to share their stories, interact, engage in discussions, and learn from each other. Eventually, because of these practices, it could also evolve into a community of practice.
In future investigations, it might be useful to observe the community of Madame Moneypenny for a longer period to get more in-depth information. My results consist of the observations of only one week. Moreover, it might be fruitful to extend the observation to other resources Wegelin offers. This is her Instagram account, podcast, newsletter, YouTube account as well as blog. By doing this, researchers will get more information on the awareness process of potential members of the community.
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Wenz, K. (2020). Lecture 3: Digital Ethnography [PowerPoint slides]