In the fall of 2016, a Linwood school board election was imminent, and Anthony Gaud, a career tech and media entrepreneur, felt a journalistic calling.
So he started Linwood Live, a Facebook group, and livestreamed interviews with all of the candidates running. He did it again in 2017.
It’s a small town, he said, and there was confusion as to what the government was doing, what the school board was doing.
“(I) wanted the town to have a say in discussing it,” said Gaud, 49. “When (I) launched the group, it was not to influence the school board election but to give each side an opportunity to have discussion about it.”
Now, Linwood Live streams Mainland Regional High School football games, posts produced videos and serves as a forum and sounding board in the community.
Linwood Live is one group of likely thousands like it. If a town has more than a handful of people, there’s a good chance its residents are online sharing news stories, kvetching about weather and potholes, and making jokes about local personalities.
“It’s kind of a combination of town square, information desk and table at your favorite diner,” said David Weiman, who became a moderator in a Ventnor community group in May.
And such groups can fill in the gaps for an understaffed press, sharing breaking information — though often with little in the way of confirmation or detail.
“To an extent, local Facebook groups do serve a similar need for local information, getting oriented in your environment and staying on top of your community,” said Katherine Ognyanova, an assistant professor of communication at Rutgers University. “You can’t rely on Facebook groups for accountability reporting. ... On the other hand, Facebook groups do provide better tools for collective action and organizing.”
Groups like Ocean City, New Jersey Flooding serve a singular focus — an issue that needles the community — and keep members on task, often mobilizing for council meetings.
Suzanne Leary Hornick started the group five years ago. She had a summer home in Ocean City for years and moved there full time six years ago.
Hornick and members of the group share a frustration and pointed rage at a local government they feel does little to address the frequent flooding that threatens their homes.
She said there isn’t enough dedicated reporting to what she sees as a critical issue.
In comes her group, and she sees it making serious headway as of late. Mayor Jay Gillian, she said, hears their issues and has worked toward solutions with them.
“In the beginning it was very contentious,” Hornick said. “I think (Gillian) started to realize that my group only wants the flooding to stop and the island to be healthy and we want to improve our quality of life. There is no ulterior motive.”
A spokesman for Ocean City said the city “welcomes cooperation and partnerships from state and federal agencies, local citizen groups, regional teams and anybody else” throughout its flood remediation efforts.
There’s a crowdsourcing element to the group, as well.
“When there’s a flooding issue … people will say, ‘My mother’s in the house alone,’ ‘Can somebody check on my property,’ ‘I’m worried about my dog,’ whatever it is,” Hornick said, “and somebody else will say, ‘I can see your house, you’re fine’ or ‘I will go check.’ It’s become a resource for the community in that way, unlike anything else in that respect.”
As communities find utility in the groups, their ranks swell. Linwood Live’s subscribers number about one fifth of the city’s population, 6,855. Hornick said her group has more members than the city has residents who vote. And, with that, personal squabbles, obnoxious advertising and endless political sniping blooms, requiring consistent moderating.
What often starts as a project or a one-off thing soon requires help. Volunteer moderators work as editors: They see when commenters bare their fangs and when topics with a history of causing conflict slip onto the timeline.
“I brought in the moderators because any time I seemed to go on a business trip or on vacation, something would happen,” Gaud said.
Their help is never really sufficient.
“The lack of editorial filtering means that information can spread fast and far,” Ognyanova said, “but so can inaccurate or harmful rumors. In fact, recent research suggests that false rumors may spread farther and faster, partly because they are often made to sound sensational while the truth may be mundane.”
Weiman sees the phenomenon in Ventnor’s group.
“I think the medium of the written word lends itself to misunderstandings that would not happen quite the same way if people were talking in person,” Weiman said. “It’s only when someone gets an unexpected reaction that they might realize the impact was different than they intended. Even given that, overall I’d say the disagreements are actually pretty civil.”
All the groups serve multiple functions: People help others find pets, post road closings, etc.
“It’s a group of people who take time out of their own busy lives to help other people,” Weiman said.
“People have become friends (in Linwood Live),” Gaud said. “I mean, it’s crazy.”
Others roll up their sleeves and get deep into extended, vitriolic arguments. Some find their neighbors’ actions slanderous.
Gaud has gotten threats of lawsuits over something a member has posted on the page: “You take that thing down or I’m gonna get my lawyer!”
Positive feedback encourages participation, Ognyanova said, but “negative, rude or disparaging comments hamper participation and threaten to unravel the social fabric of an online community.”
Overall, though, Gaud enjoys moderating the page — and sees it filling a crucial need.
“There is a real lack of … really it’s a product,” Gaud said. “People want to be entertained and informed. That’s what modern news media is. This is a form of that. It really is.”