- Associated Press - Saturday, July 29, 2017

MUSCATINE, Iowa (AP) - Sarah Garvin was at the Starbucks drive-thru last week when she saw it - a canary yellow rock with pink and aquamarine polka dots by the tip jar. It said, “Muscatine Rocks!”

Her first thought was, “We made it.”

She quickly snapped a photo and uploaded it to her Facebook group, Muscatine Rocks, captioning it with “FOUND ONE!”

It was the first time she came across a real-life product of the online community she created.

Garvin started the group back in May as a project for her family and friends. The rules of the project are simple: Find a small rock, paint it with a positive message and leave it somewhere public where someone else can find it. Garvin painted and dispersed some rocks with her 4 year old son around the time she created the group, but she hasn’t since.

It didn’t matter. The group took off on its own, drawing more than 100 people. Garvin said she didn’t expect the group to become popular. But the simplicity of the exercise struck a chord with people.

“I think there’s a lot of stressful stuff going on in people’s lives and this is something that is stress-relieving,” she told the Muscatine Journal (https://bit.ly/2tX5Sx7 ). “People have already posted that it’s become addicting in a way because it is. It’s just a focused creative activity where there’s no boundaries. There’s no rules other than just be positive.”

Garvin said she got the idea from another rock-based online community, whose members live around St. Petersburg, Florida.

“This is a community-building group meant to inspire creativity in all ages and energize people to explore the beautiful area we live in,” wrote the organizers of the 20,000-plus member group.

Hundreds of similar online communities have formed all over North America, with a handful in Iowa, around Des Moines and Ames. But they all started from an idea one woman had.

Her name is Megan Murphy, and she lives in Cape Cod. She started dropping painted rocks at Cape Cod in December 2014. The following spring, she began posting photos of her rocks on social media. The idea spread from there, first in her own network and then to people she didn’t know. Social media groups quickly followed, with the first groups forming in Virginia. Later, when the idea spread across the country, Murphy created a website, The Kindness Rocks Project.

And though she’d never been to Muscatine, Murphy’s idea found its way to Muscatine by a way of the internet.

Part of the allure of the rocks is in the manufactured mystery they create. People who leave rocks for others to find often wonder who will encounter their offering. And, of course, those who find the rocks wonder about their origin.

Garvin said those thoughts figured into her decisions on where to leave the rocks. When she walked by Grant Elementary, for example, she decided to leave rocks there.

“I just imagine some elementary kid took it and said, ‘this is just a cool rock’ and it’s in a bedroom somewhere by their night lamp,” she said.

That excitement connects strangers, and is perhaps the reason why the rock project became so popular, or “went viral.” Jan Lauren Boyles, assistant professor at Iowa State University’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, studies the way ideas spread online.

“While there is not a magical formula for creating a post that goes viral, there are a few characteristics that viral content tends to share. It’s often emotionally engaging and/or practically meaningful to a wide-ranging audience,” she wrote in an email.

Emotions drew Tammi Clark, who lives in Muscatine, to the rock project. She first heard about the project online. Last month, she found her way to the Muscatine group. Since then, she has amassed an impressive collection of pens, paints and rocks. She’s painted about 20 already and has left 10 of them around town.

The project gives her a small, tangible way to do good in the world, and particularly in Muscatine.

“Too many people see the negativity anymore,” she said. “We’re always out to judge the negative, but not very many are seeing the positive and we need more of that . especially in our town.”

And it helps her feel good about herself in the process.

“I don’t know what drew me to it,” she said. “I think the main thing is, I have depression and so I think if I was having a bad day and I were to find this rock that that says ‘laugh often’ or if I found the one that says ‘smile’ or the one I just made today that says ‘be happy’ it probably would make me smile and would cheer me up.”

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Information from: Muscatine Journal, https://www.muscatinejournal.com

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