Rediscovering local community in the digital age
Facebook can offer connections more meaningful than simply sharing a photo of your Cobb salad lunch.
I quit Facebook completely about six months ago. It didn’t happen all at once. First, I blocked anyone whose political views were, well, wrong. Then I blocked all the people who posted pictures of themselves in warm weather. And finally, I blocked over-sharers, humble-braggers, whiners, ex-girlfriends, and Russian hackers.
Pretty soon I was left with one sibling and four work colleagues who regularly shared articles I had already read. My echo chamber complete, I came to the conclusion that I was better off doing almost anything other than mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed. So I deleted the app from my phone, turned off all notifications, and removed the bookmark from my browser.
And then the power went out in Ridgefield.
There is one thing that Facebook does better than any other communications medium. “It tells you instantly what’s on people’s minds,” says State Rep. John Frey, as we talked about the role of Facebook in local communities. And when you’re sitting alone in the dark, eagerly awaiting an update from Eversource, there’s nothing like the digital glow of Facebook posts from fellow Ridgefielders to warm your heart with commiseration—and information.
Aside from being our state representative for the 111th district, Frey is also the administrator of the very active Ridgefield, CT, Facebook page. He started the page eight years ago and has grown it into an online community of nearly 11,000 members. And it is the one corner of Facebook I find I cannot live without. “It was a way to keep a more instant pulse on what the community is thinking,” Frey told me. “It’s a way for people to communicate and share ideas.”
And share they do.
Sure, the site includes plenty of thinly veiled promotions and petty complaints. And it indulges in head-scratching social-media speak, like ISO (in search of) and TIA (which Google first told me was a “transient ischemic attack,” or mini-stroke, but Urban Dictionary later clarified as “thanks in advance”).
But it also provides a powerful forum for the community to express important views. For example, when Ridgefield Schools Superintendent Karen Baldwin sent a letter to the community that borrowed heavily from one of her fellow superintendents, it sparked an immediate and impassioned online conversation about plagiarism, the school budget, and the competency of Ridgefield’s educational leadership—the kind of real-time conversation that shapes a community’s thinking and occasionally leads to actual change.
“It gets political sometimes,” says Frey, who monitors the site for inappropriate posts with the help of a few volunteers. “We don’t allow people to promote a candidate or anything like that. But if they’re commenting on a legitimate topic of the day—that’s democracy.”
Frey’s Facebook page isn’t the only place to connect with the Ridgefield community, of course. There is a perky little site called Hello Ridgefield! which describes itself as “a group that likes to focus on the fun in life and shine a spotlight on local businesses in our surrounding areas.” It’s run by an outfit called Hello Ridgefield Social Media Consulting, and I’ve always assumed it was an advertising vehicle for local businesses. But when I reached out to the administrator for comment, she declined.
And then there is the Ridgefield Open Tag Sale page, a site with a language all its own, where I recently found enterprising Ridgefielders hawking everything from breast pumps to eggs from a backyard henhouse (is that even legal?). Someone was also trying to unload a used bottle of flea-and-tick spray and a lightly used pillow.
In many ways, Facebook is a destructive force. It can drive people apart just as quickly as it brings them together. The company’s founder Mark Zuckerberg admits as much. “There are questions about whether we can make a global community that works for everyone, and whether the path ahead is to connect more or reverse course,” he wrote in a recent open letter that addressed the potential for the platform to be coopted and abused.
Still, at the local level, Facebook and other digital media are fostering an important community conversation. There are certainly cases in which these discussions become unproductive or even hurtful, hijacked by provocateurs, emboldened by anonymity, and intent on sowing discord.
But for the most part, these digital forums accurately reflect the community they represent. They help us find our lost dogs. They connect doctors with patients, students with tutors, and leaky pipes with plumbers. And they help us celebrate our victories, and mourn our losses, together.