After a recent snowstorm, a post appeared in my hometown neighborhood’s Facebook group. A certain house, the author wrote, “refuses to shovel its sidewalk—for the 2nd winter in a row.” I’ve notified the Village Hall, they said. Twice, in fact. Nothing. Given the number of kids who walk up and down the hill, “it’s truly an accident waiting to happen.”
The 43 responses that followed were a neat sampling of casual human grievances. The town doesn’t really care what happens in our neighborhood, one person complained. You pay taxes, another said, an implicit accusation that the town was neglecting its end of the civic bargain. The mayor, who was tagged in the original post, showed up, promising to handle things.
A day later, the original poster delivered the good news. “The most egregious offender abruptly shoveled this morning…after 2 years of neglect,” they wrote. “Yay Facebook!”
Community-based groups like my old neighborhood’s thrive on Facebook. There are all kinds — “free and for sale” groups, “you know you’re from [insert place name] when… “ groups, “remember how things used to be?” groups, and your ordinary news-and-discussion groups. There are also more eclectic permutations, like Moms of the Upper East Side (MUES), Wakullaleaks (stated purpose: “keeping our elected officials in the school system accountable to the people of Wakulla county”), and Atlanta Social Elite. There are groups for states, counties, cities, towns, neighborhoods, even individual apartment buildings. They all have the same basic purpose: bringing together people who live in, or care about, a given area.
It’s a magical petri dish of local action, and at a time when local news is slowly suffocating, it’s a nice reminder of place and custom.
It’s a peculiar phenomenon to see on Facebook. The platform is home to all kinds of popular groups for hobbies, political interests, memes, and pets. But these things are more abstract; anyone, anywhere can pick them up. It makes them perfect for the internet, itself an ill-defined blob of stuff with no borders. A place, on the other hand, is tangible, and immovable. Place-based groups shouldn’t really work online, because they’re not flexible ideas.
And yet, if you look at a map of America and put your finger on a region at random, there’s probably a group for its residents. Part of this is likely due to Facebook’s efforts: In early 2017, Mark Zuckerberg posted a manifesto of nearly 6,000 words, 81 of which were “community.” Groups, he said, would be a big part of Facebook’s push to “build a global community.” Later that year, the company introduced some of the tools it planned to give group administrators. It’s a transparent effort to position Facebook as a huckster of positivity rather than misinformation and sadness, but it also means a greater emphasis on groups like my old neighborhood’s.
And yet, as compelling as these groups may be for their idiosyncrasy — a refreshing characteristic in a feed full of BuzzFeed Tasty videos — there’s also a much simpler reality at work. They can be absolutely deranged and endlessly, unintentionally entertaining. They’re like a comment section, only instead of anonymous users, it’s people who have to see each other at the grocery story the next day. (Again, join your local group, right now, if you haven’t already.)
Community drama is a special sort, as anyone who’s spent time in a local bar can attest to. Because while people may join these groups for “community” or hyperlocal information, they often stay for the drama. It’s the Real Housewives phenomenon. People watch Kyle and Kim jab their fingers at Brandi for the spectacle, but they also watch it because it speaks to the things we secretly identify with: pettiness, messiness, and histrionics. Local Facebook groups take this formula and add context — people, places, issues, and topics that ring particularly true for the people who know them well. It’s why I found the snowy sidewalk debacle so hilarious — I walked past that house every day when I was a kid, and it’s exactly the kind of thing residents of the neighborhood would complain about. It’s also why I still checked the group more than five years after I moved away. Part of me that will always recognize and appreciate the batshit-crazy majesty of it all.
This isn’t to say that you necessarily need an intimate familiarity with a place to find its goings-on satisfying. A friend once told me about her former apartment building’s Facebook group, in which one woman listed a jumbo bottle of lotion for sale, except it was only three-quarters full; another posted that she lost a bag of pork chops, and wondered if anyone had seen it in the elevators. Anyone would — should — laugh at that. But it’s better when you know the people and places. It’s a magical petri dish of local action, and at a time when local news is slowly suffocating, it’s a nice reminder of place and custom.
A friend once told me about her former apartment building’s Facebook group, in which one woman listed a bottle of lotion for sale, except it was only three-quarters full
But this is the internet, after all, which means there’s always the potential for toxic bile to come gushing up, even though the group rules often ban fighting or trolling. A few months ago, a thread in a different hometown Facebook group — there are several variations — quickly erupted into charges of anti-semitism and bigotry. Unsurprisingly, these groups tend to surface problems that are especially relevant to a particular town or community; in the case of my hometown, which is located near a large Hasidic community, that problem is anti-semitism. And unlike, say, Nextdoor or a neighborhood email thread, Facebook groups tend to be less strict about their membership; address verification isn’t always mandatory, and depending on the settings, members can invite anyone on their friend list. This isn’t to say that something like Nextdoor is free of issues — it’s definitely not — but merely that Facebook, by virtue of its larger user base and looser rules, has the potential to spiral out of control. Wading through the posts can sometimes feel like a sitting in on a town hall meeting where citizens fling only the worst they have to offer.
Last week, in yet another “community-building” push, Facebook announced that big changes were coming to the news feed. Rather than suffocating its users with content from publishers, it would begin surfacing more posts from friends and family.
After the sidewalk shoveling controversy died down, my mother noted that, all things considered, the post had been a relatively tame and ultimately effective dose of public shaming. Whether or not the owners of the house agree with her, these kind of interactions will inevitably be part of whatever “community” grows out of the news feed changes. From the outside, it seems as though Facebook believes emphasizing posts from friends and family will solve some of its biggest problems. The question, though, is whether it realizes or cares that this “meaningful” content isn’t always going to be nice stuff about weddings and babies.
Given the social network’s track record of grappling with the fallout from its giant social experiments, I’m not hopeful. If this effort falls flat, it will deny, deny, deny until it can’t deny anymore. But until then, I’ll keep lurking in my beloved groups.