The Working Waterfront

Facebook, the island version

Will the new digital community fracture more sharply?

Courtney Naliboff
Posted 2015-05-19
Last Modified 2015-05-19

At the top of Kent’s Hill, the one-way road leading into North Haven’s downtown, is the community bulletin board. Hand-written notices of transfer station hours, with annotations like “No April Fool’s Joke!” and “Dump Closed—Guess Why” are posted there, along with the high school basketball schedule, welcome home notices for new babies, posters for events at the community center and restaurant hours.

Everyone has to pass the board on their way to the ferry, so it’s a pretty good way to reach people.

In the last few years, though, Facebook has become the island’s most visible point of contact. North Haven has a page, the school has a page, so does Waterman’s and so do each of the restaurants. I’d estimate that about 95 percent of North Haven households have at least one member with a Facebook page. We use it to share beautiful photos, disseminate information about cancelled ferries, and swap, sell and barter our clutter; and celebrate birthdays.

Facebook on North Haven has an intranet feel, almost as though it’s a cyber extension of the physical bulletin board we relied on for so long. Despite the dictates of good sense and etiquette, adults, kids, teachers, students, administrators, summer residents and year-rounders are connected as “friends.” It’s simply the most convenient way to communicate with the island population.

There are times, though, when we forget how public everything is, forget that we’re connected to people outside of our social circle, forget about all of that, and use Facebook to vent, complain, point fingers and validate each others’ heat-of-the-moment reactions.

Because we’re connected to so many of our neighbors, it’s easy to find the voices that agree with us. We love that little jolt of dopamine, when others tell us that we’re right to be angry at how much something costs, or a perceived insult, or a piece of town legislation.

Everyone needs to blow off a little steam, to find sympathetic ears and like-minded friends and let it all hang out. We used to do that on the phone, at our friends’ houses, around the barrel stove or at the store on coffee break. We still do, but then we take it out into the expanse of the Internet.

And, according a Chinese study printed in the MIT Technology Review, angry Internet posts are the most influential. In a closed system like North Haven, it’s easy to see how someone’s Facebook rant can quickly become public opinion, even if it’s the opinion of a very vocal minority.

The danger is in how influential such a rant can be. We’ve seen in the past how a few loud voices can create a schism in the community, with residents segregating themselves into ferry cabins and students staging walkouts. This was before social media. Communication happened out loud, letters were written and plenty of strife was caused in a short period of time. Now that information can be “viral,” I worry about the potential for increased scale and speed should discontent snowball into a movement.

I heard Facebook connections described recently as “shallow.” The connections we have on the island, where we literally rely upon each other for transportation, infrastructure, medical help, child care, education, food and entertainment, are as deep as can be, regardless of our actual or virtual friendship.

My fear, as more and more of us take advantage of the free-for-all bully pulpit of the Internet, is that those deep connections will erode away, leaving us stranded, sectioned into islands within the island, populated only with the people who click “like.”

Courtney Naliboff is a music teacher and writer who lives on North Haven with her husband and daughter.