I’m aware that there are a number of Facebook groups that have been started over the years with the ostensible purpose of encouraging discussion about issues and events in Richmond. I was added to several of them early on, but so far in all cases I’ve removed myself soon after.
As someone who has always wanted there to be more public dialog about issues and current events in our community, I should be glad to see these groups emerge. In general I think that more public debate is a good thing, that having an engaged citizenry is essential to healthy democracy, and that Richmond has too often suffered from decisions made quietly in power centers unaccountable to public opinion.
But when I tried to participate in these Facebook groups, what I saw was usually far from anything you could call dialog. At best, it was gossip, self-promotion and joking around – fine. At its worst, it’s putting a sow’s head on a stick to feed the Beast. I’ve seen people whipping themselves into a frenzy of personal attacks, militantly adversarial exchanges about even simple issues, and the distribution of false rumors and information that seemed to reward the person who could get their facts the most wrong.
But the hardest part to watch wasn’t the libelous inaccuracies or the stinging confrontations.
It’s knowing that these are probably people who, deep down, care in some important way about the future of Richmond, but who are spending what might be their precious little time for civic engagement in an online mudslinging match.
Yes, different people get engaged in different ways. Again, I cringe at the thought that I’m criticizing any form of engagement, even if I personally see it as unhelpful — who am I to say, right?
But what if we could translate the hours spent doing battle on a Facebook group into hours spent sharing views at community planning conversations, City Council meetings, and sessions with the myriad consultants and advisors we bring in to tell us what the city needs?
What if we could have forums where the passion for community improvement could be translated into action, matching people with volunteer opportunities, applying their experience and perspective to upcoming events, or even getting them to seek leadership positions themselves?
Somehow, these groups feel like a missed opportunity to use online discussion tools for the betterment of the community.
But the energy and interest is there. Is there something different we could do with it?