Back in the 1990s when I first got my start publishing mental health resources, it was my firm belief that the internet was a wonder that could help anyone who had access to it. I was a true believer, and it was my job to help convert not only my profession, but everyone I met.
In the 2000s, when social networking sites began to take hold, I again held out hope and expressed optimism. “Such services allow us to better keep in touch with our loved ones.”
Over the past few years, however, my optimism and faith in the internet to help bring us all closer together is beginning to slip. Seriously slip. And what is bringing me down most of all are the Facebook groups I subscribe to for each of the little local towns I live by.
Facebook is no stranger to controversy and hot water. It’s always had a very lax relationship with personal privacy, and has a history and track record that, in my mind, clearly demonstrate they don’t give a shit about you personally. I, like most people, understand that point yet still continue to use the service.
The Intent of Facebook Groups
Facebook Groups were meant to help expand the social networking giant’s reach into our lives. Introduced in 2010, they were originally intended to help friends create new social groups focused around shared interests or locales. Since that time, millions of new Groups have been created for every hobby, health condition, and town in the world. In fact, some towns around me have more than one Group devoted to them, so that residents can share local gossip and talk about local happenings and interests.
It sounds great. At the time of their introduction I thought, “What better way to enhance the feelings of connectedness with the people who live in the same town than to provide them a nice, easy-to-use platform on a service that most people already have an account with anyway?”
People will share town happenings, get excited for an upcoming art show or event, and talk about memories of the town they grew up in. If some elderly citizen’s driveway needs a quick shovel, we’d all pitch in to ensure it got done. And when that new restaurant or gift shop opens up downtown, we’d all rally around to show our support. Just found a sale going on in your favorite store, you’d share it. The local coffeeshop is selling pastries at half off, you’d post it.
Those were my perhaps unrealistic expectations when I joined my first town group.
The Reality of Facebook Groups
The reality, however, is far different.
At first, I thought that what I was seeing must’ve been an anomaly after subscribing to two different town groups. So I did what my scientist brain always tells me to do — increase the sample size.
So over the past two years, I’ve subscribed off and on to over a dozen different town groups in my region. I saw the same behavior on all of them, to varying degrees. In fact, the behavior I observed is so common across town groups, enterprising souls have made up “town bingo” cards that you can play along with, waiting for people to talk and complain about the exact same things on a regular basis.
One of the towns (more of a small city) loves to talk about police sirens in a certain bad section of town. “What are the cops doing there, anybody know?” “I hope they’re arresting those dealers down on the corner finally!” Which is exactly what I would expect of a town group. Except this conversation repeats itself nearly every week. It’s like we’re living in our own version of the movie Groundhog Day. More grimly, perhaps the drug/crime problem is really that bad — a unique warning sign to the town’s mayor.
The color of the town’s water is a big deal in many of these groups, too. It’s no wonder, since all of the towns reside along the Merrimack River, one of the most polluted rivers in New England due to cities being allowed to dump overflow sewage into it when it rains a bit too much. It also doesn’t help that many of the towns around here date from the 1700 and 1800s, with sewer and water systems that are none too young either.
Helicopter flying overhead or a plane that seems to be flying too low? Facebook Groups has got you covered! Someone will inevitably remind us that technology is in our skies, as though helicopters and planes were invented just yesterday. The fact that there is daily business being carried out in our skies that ordinary citizens generally don’t know, much less care about, seems to be a true wonder to some people.
Oh no, a new business wants to open in our historic little town! Somebody wants to build a new building? Instead of welcoming new businesses and industry, most of these town group’s members seem intent on keeping all change away. Not understanding that change is what makes diversity and growth possible (the opposite of stagnation and decline), too many of these citizens see any change to their town as a negative. Nearly always, these conversations start with, “How can we stop so-and-so from coming here?”
You wouldn’t live in New England if you didn’t have a post at least once a week noting some sort of wildlife the person saw. “I just saw a coyote, watch out, be safe, and keep your pets indoors!” It’s as if people don’t realize that most people aren’t using Facebook as a real-time social alert system any more. (And if you are, shame on you! Turn off all Facebook notifications that aren’t private messages to you. Whatever that’s going on on Facebook is not more important than what’s going on in your real life right now in front of you.)
No Way to Fix Facebook Groups for Towns
I’ve spent some time thinking about this issue and whether there’s some way to reinforce or encourage more positive behavior in Facebook groups for towns.
I’m not sure that it’s possible. Sometimes the loudest people are the ones who have the least interesting thing to say. There’s virtually no policy or guideline you could implement, even if you were an admin of one of these groups, that wouldn’t be heavy-handed and impossible to enforce.
Complaining, for better or worse, is a natural part of the human condition. It’s one of the things that brings us together. I’m just not sure it draws us closer to one another in any meaningful way, because its based in negativity.
In short, people will complain and talk about whatever is on their mind. Some people have no filter, and Facebook groups is simply a reflection of that reality. Most of us probably didn’t realize our town was full of such a diverse group of individuals until Groups made that clear. We have to take the good along with the bad, since that’s what makes a group of people potentially interesting.
The never-ending negativity, however, is grating. And since my little observational study has ended, I’m going to remove myself from some of the most negative of these groups. I’ll stay in the ones where beautiful photos of the town and surrounding views are regularly shared, and steel myself against the weekly complaints of “over development” whenever someone proposes a new business or building in town.
The intent of Facebook Groups was good. But when it comes to towns, perhaps we see a little more of our fellow citizens than we had expected.