- Associated Press - Sunday, December 13, 2015

COLCHESTER, Conn. (AP) - They have names like “Griswold Now,” ”Preston Community Voice” and “Cranky in Colchester.”

Those local Facebook groups and dozens like them are forums for their members to sound off on anything and everything, from lost pigs and other pets to whether a community’s proposal to build a new school is fiscally wise.

There’s an argument to be made that Facebook is the ultimate time-waster, but people such as Jennifer Mattos don’t see it that way.

Mattos is an administrator for the Cranky in Colchester group, which has more than 1,000 members, and she says it was her involvement with it over the past year that inspired her to register to vote in town.

“It started as a place to complain,” Mattos, a Colchester resident and parent, said. “But now, some things that are issues in town are being addressed. Town employees read the posts.”

Hot-button issues, at least in Mattos’ group, include topics such as graffiti and traffic control.

Sites like the community pages on Facebook are the modern equivalents of a town crier, or the local coffee klatch where folks can speak their minds.

“And with mobile devices, it’s like having a town crier literally in the palm of our hands,” said Maria Miranda, a Norwich-based advocate and consultant in new media on a national level since 2009.

Membership in these community groups ranges from about 100 or 200 to more than 3,000 people. But most have a few very active members who post, and a majority of others who simply “lurk” on the page and read the posts, sometimes “liking” them or sharing them with others.

Griswold Now! was started by Griswold First Selectman Kevin Skulczyck before he was elected to his town office. It’s still among the town’s most active pages, with more than 3,000 members, and it’s moderated by several residents.

“It was a resource for community members to share information,” Skulczyck said.

The page helped Griswold residents discuss and ultimately pass its budget this year on the first try, Skulczyck said.

“The prior year it took five votes for the budget to pass,” he said. “This year, the Board of Education and the community had a collective voice, and ‘one and done’ became the slogan for this budget. And the page was a positive tool that helped that happen.”

The other side of the coin is that as the page has grown, so have the number of what Skulczyck called “keyboard cowboys” who attack other members and bring nothing constructive to the conversations, he said.

“It’s shameful. But the good still outweighs the bad, in my opinion,” he said.

Mattos said she’s had to step in when arguments between members start to involve sensitive topics.

“If they start to mention kids, I become involved because it can become charged very quickly,” Mattos said. “I keep a closer eye on it and am more hands-on.”

She’s had to remove members from the group, and even said there were a couple of rare instances when a threat was leveled at someone, and she contacted police.

But much of the information on Cranky in Colchester seems trivial- lost pets, postings announcing upcoming community events, and so on.

“Something like someone complaining about gas prices is a normal gripe that I don’t tend to at all,” Mattos said. “We pretty much let anything fly.”

Mattos said it’s hard for her to pinpoint how many hours she spends tending to the site. A high school friend of hers helps manage it, and has the ability to add or remove people from the group.

Much of that time is spent culling spammers who try to join in order to post advertisements to the page. They usually are easy to spot.

“If we have no mutual friends, or if their location is from somewhere far away, that’s a giveaway,” that the account may be fake, Mattos said.

Sites like Facebook aren’t used just by residents. Often, municipalities use the pages as one of many means of communicating with the public.

In Montville and Colchester, the local police have their own Facebook pages. Lebanon’s resident state trooper’s office has one as well.

Raymond Occhialini, Montville’s fire marshal and emergency management director, runs a page devoted to getting the word out to the public about fires, road closures and other incidents where the town’s first responders might be involved.

The Montville EM page started in 2011 as a way for Occhialini to keep people informed during emergencies. He put it to quick use when a snowstorm in October of that year knocked out power to hundreds of homes in town.

“That first month, we had 1,000 friends. Now it’s up to about 2,000,” Occhialini said.

But it can be a double-edged sword, Miranda said. There’s no censorship or editing, but also no fact-checking.

“We have a higher level of responsibility to question the information,” she said.

Occhialini sees this too, and said towns need to start adopting policies on how they use social media. It’s something he plans to bring up to local officials in the near future.

“People aren’t going to web pages to get their information,” he said. “They get it on their phones now. You can’t have information from the town coming from many different sources.”

Shawn Mawhiney manages the Facebook pages for both The William W. Backus Hospital and Windham Hospital in his capacity as director of communications. Far from just being a marketing tool for the hospitals, the pages allow the hospitals to interact with the community and to use criticism to improve, he said.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t get positive and negative comments from patients and their families,” Mawhiney said. “We had one patient in the ER who was posting a play-by-play of how long it was taking for a doctor to see her.”

Real-time monitoring of the pages lets Mawhiney respond to posts quickly, he said.

“We encourage conversation on our pages,” he said. “And people tell us they’re appreciative when we get back to them about things they’ve posted. We use it as a tool to improve.”


Information from: Norwich Bulletin, https://www.norwichbulletin.com

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