Last month’s edition of Palms West Monthly had a very insightful article about Facebook (“Finding deeper meaning online,” August, 2017 issue) and how it’s looking to find ways to add deeper meaning to online discussions. This article connected with me as I’ve been involved with online communities for over 20 years. I appreciate how technology and the tools that are available can be used to build up community and help people interact with their city.
A few years ago, I started the West Palm Beach-focused Facebook group “Engage West Palm.” My goal was to create a virtual town square, a place where people from different areas in the city could come to discuss issues that affect us all. A place where we could strengthen our own communities and engage with the City of West Palm Beach as a whole.
But before we talk about online communities, let’s talk about real communities.
When my family first moved to the south end of West Palm Beach we were looking for a couple different things. Having a great neighborhood school in South Olive Elementary was a good pull, as well as affordable single family homes in a good neighborhood. But what really closed the deal for us was the area’s sense of community.
This community has strong ties as one of West Palm Beach’s oldest neighborhoods. The sense of community is so strong that many adults who grew up in this neighborhood return here to raise families.
Politicians talk a lot about creating jobs to spur economic development and bring people into town, but nothing creates a strong town and economic engine like a sense of community and belonging to a city. Strong communities through neighborhood associations provide a unified voice to the city and demand the changes they need. They also provide a mechanism for helping local leaders make an impact in their neighborhood as well as the city in general. West Palm Beach is lucky to have many of these neighborhoods.
In downtown West Palm Beach, many residents are either seasonal, new to the area or living in insular condos. The traditional ways that neighbors connect and build communities don’t exist here. Also, cities are comprised of many neighborhoods, and residents often desire to connect with other parts of town and engage with their city government.
This is where the Internet – and specifically Facebook – provide a fantastic tool, filling a void that is created by a lack of communication between the local municipalities and their citizens. These Facebook groups are creating a virtual town square.
Before creating Engage West Palm, I looked at similar groups locally. Delray Raw is one of the largest neighborhood Facebook groups with 16,000 members. Lake Worth’s two largest groups – Lake Worth Voice and Lake Worth Local – have over 10,000 members. Engage West Palm has 3,500 members and is quickly growing.
There is an old joke that goes like this, “The good thing about the Internet is that it gives anyone a platform to say whatever they want. The bad thing about the Internet is that it gives anyone a platform to say whatever they want.” This holds especially true on municipal Facebook groups, and Engage West Palm is no exception.
Generally, the groups stay on topic, but just like any social group that represents a diverse segment of society, many viewpoints are held and shared. Some you agree with, some you don’t, and sometimes the administrator (me) has to step in and close the conversation.
One thing that has helped our group come together is holding regular in-person meet-ups, where members have the opportunity to meet in person and “attach faces to names.” One of our members, local trivia champion and President of the Florida East Coast Railway Society Jim Kovalsky, took it upon himself to organize these meet-ups. So far, we’ve met at various downtown establishments and taken an Intracoastal cruise on the Hakuna Matata.
When you’re arguing with anonymous people on the Internet it’s easy get into heated discussions. But I think you’ll find that face to face on a catamaran cruise, with a summer breeze blowing from the ocean and a cup of punch in your hand, discussions have a softer and more neighborly tone.
I’ve enjoyed discussing issues with friends and neighbors on Engage West Palm, and I hope you can either join our community or find a community close to you that you can join which will help you engage with your town, city or village.