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Residents work to wrangle online community groups

July 30, 2018

WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) — Community Facebook groups allow members to post information about arrests, accidents, fires and traffic jams as they unfold.

The groups debate controversial decisions out of city hall, the goings on at their kids’ schools, and give space to complaints about bad service or botched pizza orders.

And as they’ve become the pulse of their respective communities, the online groups also pose challenges to the people who manage them.

Laura Ricci, administrator of the 28,000-member group, You’re Probably from Worcester, MA if______, said that Facebook page has grown into “a beast.”

Ms. Ricci said she and co-administrator Joyce Scherr spend a fair amount of time deleting posts and blocking members who cross the line.

The page doesn’t allow political discussions, advertising, real estate postings, GoFundMe announcements, or foul language.

For example, Ms. Ricci said she deleted a video posted to the site last week by a city woman who complained about her access to health insurance. At the end of the 10-minute video, the poster unleashed an F-bomb as she issued an angry challenge to Gov. Charles Baker.

“She’s a bit dramatic and the last sentence is so unacceptable,” Ms. Ricci said. “Send that one to Baker.”

Ms. Ricci shared with a reporter a message she received from a person who has been blocked from the group. The writer said she was tired of Ms. Ricci acting like a bully and had contacted Facebook to have Ms. Ricci removed as administrator.

Ms. Ricci said there are a couple of other Facebook groups with the same name, but with a fraction of the membership. She said these other sites are populated by people she has expelled from the group. She said they often accuse her of censorship.

“They came into the group and tried to railroad it,” Ms. Ricci said. “I had to throw them out because they were just swearing, and really just ignorant.

Ms. Ricci states that the page is intended for people who want to share memories of Worcester, or discuss current topics.

“I’m trying to give people a place where they can come and share memories of what’s going on in Worcester,” she said. “Good things. Some sad things. And to be able to be comfortable and be able to say what they want to say, without being judgmental, and say it without having to use bad language.”

She added: “I try to keep some semblance of order here ... They can get into really bad fights. I end up deleting people because they accuse people and judge people and they just get so mad at each other.”

Three other administrators shared their stories.

Nicole Paré launched Leominsterites Unite in 2013 because another Leominster Facebook group aimed to focus on memories of the city.

Leominsterites Unite, which has approximately 12,000 members, provides an opportunity to discuss current issues.

Ms. Paré said she spends two to 10 hours a week managing the page. She noted that some weeks she gets burned out and stays off Facebook for days at a time. Other weeks, when there’s a lot going on in the city, she said she’s engaged in the posts.

The group has grown to be self-policing, but if something gets out of hand Ms. Paré said she tends to receive private messages from members giving her a heads-up that she needs to monitor the discussion.

As is the case with the Worcester group, Ms. Paré said political discussions aren’t allowed.

“I tried,” she said, “but it was too divisive and it turned nice people into mean people. I also don’t allow people to be disrespectful to each other. Blatant name-calling, racism, vulgarities serve no purpose in our world. I don’t want to contribute to the problem. Most members back me up on that one, but some people complain that I’m censoring them.”

Ms. Paré said her favorite posts involve reuniting lost items with their rightful owners. Pets, wedding bands, wallets, children’s blankets and toys have been returned.

Going forward, Ms. Paré said she hopes members “see all the good things that are going on in the city,” and that they focus more on the positive and get involved to change the negative. “I hope the people who run the city hear the voice of the group to know what their constituents want and need from them,” she said.

Ms. Pare’s friend, Andrea Edwards, is the administrator of the more-than 700-member Gardnerites United page, which launched in October.

Ms. Edwards grew up in Gardner, but lived in Leominster while the Leominsterites Unite page was in its infancy. She said she saw the LU page grow from a small group to one that she could regularly reference for information about the city, and things to do in the area.

Ms. Edwards, who became friends with Ms. Paré and her husband through LU, moved back to Gardner after a 10-year absence, but said she struggled to find a similar social media presence in the area. She started the GU page in the hopes that she could create on social media in Gardner what was already present in Leominster.

Ms. Edwards said managing the site has become somewhat of a full-time job.

“It is linked to my phone so I get notifications as things are posted and people request to join,” she said. “I pretty much manage it around my regular work schedule. It is not one of those things where you can turn off notifications and ignore it for three days. It’s definitely a labor of love and I wouldn’t be spending so much time on it if I weren’t invested in it.”

Ms. Edwards said she hasn’t yet run across anything that she’s had to delete because she found it offensive.

She said she has a hard rule about complaining about agencies and businesses without giving them the opportunity to correct the issue.

“Local businesses rely on word of mouth and social media postings can highly impact them,” Ms. Edwards said. “I don’t want to see any business getting negative reviews without the opportunity to acknowledge and fix the mistake.”

Ryan DesRoches, administrator of the more than 13,000-member Webster, Dudley, Oxford, Thompson Area Forum since its inception in February 2013, said he started the page mainly because he was unhappy at the way some town forums were being run at the time.

Mr. DesRoches said he wanted to focus the forum’s efforts on community events and supporting local businesses — something that wasn’t being done on other forums at the time.

He said his favorite posts are the ones that see the community bond together, whether it be for a fundraiser, community event, or to support a new local business.

The Webster area group doesn’t allow items to be sold, but it does allow advertisements of businesses within a 30-mile radius once per week.

“We then trust in our members to be adults and self-censor themselves,” he said. “They can always email or report a post if they think it’s getting out of line, and either myself or (co-administrator Matt Haynes) will take a look and remove the post or comment if needed.”

Mr. DesRoches said the group allows people to talk about any topic, from various opinions and viewpoints. But if the topic is political or negative, the administrators become proactive and watch the thread closely so that any potential flame wars are squashed before they can begin.

“If someone crosses the line,” he said, “we might ‘mute’ them and give them a suspension from the group for a day or so to calm down. We very rarely ban anyone permanently unless they really cross the line and/or are repeat offenders or spammers.”

Despite that latitude, there are still accusations of censorship.

“With the amount of people we have,” Mr. DesRoches said, “you can’t make everyone happy all the time, and we do have some complainers from time to time. However, most people like the way the forum is organized and run, and that’s one of the reason we’re one of the biggest ones in the area.”

The administrators of the group revised rules based on member feedback. All of the rules were suggestions by the group at one time or other and then voted on, he said.

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Online: https://bit.ly/2M3Bb3d

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Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com

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