How to start and maintain an online neighbourhood discussion group: An interview with Teresa Douglas

Teresa Douglas is a moderator of the Facebook group for the Acadia Park neighbourhood at the University of British Columbia, and was instrumental in establishing the group.  I asked her to share her thoughts about how to start and maintain an online neighbourhood discussion group.

How did the Acadia Park Facebook group get started?

TD—”I was part of the Acadia Park Residents’ Association, and one of the things that came up there was that we didn’t really have a venue as a neighbourhood to talk about neighbourhood-specific things.  There was an existing online discussion group that served an area larger than our neighbourhood, but it was used more for selling than for discussion.  Also, it was not well moderated and sometimes the discussions turned negative. So, the idea was to create a closed group of people who live in this neighbourhood so that they could talk about issues that were pertinent to the neighbourhood.”

What problem was the Acadia Park Facebook group intended to solve?

TD—”There were some things that were just very mundane.  “Hey, can anybody watch my child for the next 10 minutes?” is not something you’re going to say to a group 4,000 strong full of people that you don’t know who may not live near you and you can’t vouch for, but you might say that in a group of people that you generally know that includes neighbours who have already been to your house.  We also had had some issues in the neighbourhood around traffic and we needed a venue to discuss that.  Also, we have laundry rooms where people donate clothes and we wanted a place for people to say, ‘Hey, I put some shoes in there in case anybody wants them.’”

So there was an advantage to keeping the group local?

TD—”The thing is, we know all the players involved, so when I’ve stepped in and reminded the group that we want to keep things friendly, one of the things I could rightly say was you may run into this person in the laundry room. You might run into this person in the common areas, and that’s a big difference that keeps things generally civil, because the person you’re berating tonight may be the person you pass as you’re walking your kid to preschool tomorrow.”

How did you keep the new Facebook group from having the same issues as the larger group?

TD—”It’s by invitation and approval to get in–you have to answer questions about where you live to verify that you are a current resident of Acadia Park.  Also, we don’t have for-sale posts.  We’ve had some nuance around services.  Neighbours can post about services as long as it isn’t too often (and the moderators decide if it’s too often).  So we’re not getting inundated with, “buy my kids boots.” We’re not inundated with people who don’t live here who decide they need to pick a fight on the internet.  And we step in if the conversation is attacking people personally.”

What was the problem with the for-sale posts?

TD—”They overwhelmed everything else.  You might post, “Hey, did you notice some guy trying to steal bikes?”  And maybe somebody would see that and maybe they wouldn’t, because at the same time that they hit send somebody else was trying to get rid of all of their worldly goods before they move back home.  So it was just the sheer volume of those posts that was the problem.  We wanted this to be a place for the community to discuss very specific community things.”

What suggestions do you have for someone wanting to set up a similar online neighbourhood discussion group?

TD—”Well, it gets a little complicated because the people who live here are here for a specific purpose.  They’re student families with the University and very often they’re living far away from whatever support they may have had with their families.  They’re looking to find out about what it’s like to live in this place. So, I would say for somebody who doesn’t live in this context and wants to try to start up a neighbourhood Facebook-type community page, you would want to decide that you’re going to be the moderator and you’re in it for the long haul.  Have some clear guidelines about what the page is for, because, why would somebody join it? What problem are you solving for them?  Maybe you want to start a neighbourhood watch.  Maybe you want better libraries. Maybe you’re trying to just get to know your neighbours because you think it’s a good idea. If you have other people you know in your neighbourhood and can get them to sign up on it too, people can start to see that this is a place that might have some value.  But, you have to answer the questions, ‘Why do you want to do this?’ and ‘Why would anybody care?’”

How do you get people to join your group?

TD—”Post things that are useful that other people might want to know about.  Maybe there are events at the local library and you’re posting about the events. Maybe there are workshops. Maybe you are doing a neighbourhood watch program.  For us, it was a lot of events.  ‘Here are the things that are going on in your neighbourhood.’ If you have an idea of the demographic in your neighbourhood (Are there are a lot of kids?  Are there a lot of retirees?  Is it a mix? Is there an issue that the neighbourhood is worried about?  Is there a safety concern?), then post things that answer or address those concerns.”

Do you have any other suggestion for someone who might want to form an online neighbourhood discussion group?

TD–“Think of it as a combination of telling a story and trying to sell people on the benefit. Posting pictures of why this is a fun place to live or why the neighbourhood is great.  And, be prepared for long stretches of time when it might be somewhat thankless and be willing to push through that and keep going.”

Has this been a rewarding experience for you?

TD–“Yes, it has.  It’s good to have a feel for the health of the neighbourhood, because my kids are in this neighbourhood and I like knowing about it.  It’s been fun.”

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The Acadia Park Facebook group was started on August 6th, 2016.  It currently has 480 members and daily discussions on a variety of community-related topics.  (For full disclosure, I never thought anyone would use it.  Fortunately, I was wrong.)

 

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