Many local communities embrace the concept of online notice boards which connect people, facilitate an exchange of information, and help keep us safe.
Last week, I saw how useful these notice boards can be after responding to a post about someone needing egg cartons just minutes after wondering what to do with the teetering stack of cartons on top of my fridge.
Within 12 hours, the cartons were gone, picked up from my front gate. Local problem, local solution. How satisfying.
However, these sites don’t run themselves.
Volunteers such as Toni Ward – who oversees community notice boards for Eden, Tathra and Candelo – and Dan Dean, who was a moderator for the Jindabyne Notice Board for five years, say they put many hours into keeping the sites running every week.
“The time commitment varies depending on how heavily you moderate and how many people belong to the group,” says Dan.
“I did the Jindy group for five years with Jeff, the guy who started it and who still runs it. I’d never want to do it alone; you do a lot of work behind the scenes that people don’t see and you’re doing it on top of a 40-hour workweek.”
The notice board moderation work includes vetting new members and dealing with robot armies.
Despite having a community of about 3000 people who live in the town year-round, the Jindabyne Notice Board has more than 30,000 members, a fact Dan attributes to the area’s seasonal swell in population.
“Jindabyne is a fantastic community but it has a few contentious issues, such as brumbies and the ski season, which makes moderating a tough job.”
For Toni, having clear rules and small groups has helped keep things civil. Like Dan, she has co-moderators, although she started many of the groups.
“The rules are no swearing, slander or general unkindness, no posts that have nothing to do with the town or locale, and no political posts,” she says.
During the summer’s bushfires, Toni relaxed the rules about who could join the groups, recognising that community notice boards in bushfire-threatened areas such as Eden were important sources of information for people across Australia.
The Eden Voice, which previously had 2000 members, swelled to more than 5000 in a short time.
Now Toni and her fellow moderators at The Voice are in the process of undoing some of the expansion that came with the fires.
“It’s time to get back to what the group is about, which is sharing Eden news, events and views, or advertising Eden businesses or jobs,” she says. “We’ve had to be strong to stick with the formula, but it’s been so successful in the past.”
Both Toni and Dan speak of the growing problem of online abuse and division, including moderator abuse.
“Boy, do we cop it if we remove somebody’s post,” says Toni. “We’re accused of censorship and of only allowing posts that we agree with. Sometimes a person posts a view and somebody will make a comment in the thread with an opposite view and 20 people come into the thread and seem to form a mob against the poster. The rudeness and bullying blow my mind.”
According to Dan, this kind of behaviour is becoming more common on The Jindabyne Notice Board. He says he often saw fake social media accounts that appear to be politically aligned with the left or right.
“It takes a lot of work to check these people out,” he says. “They come in with political comments designed to stir the pot.
“I put it down to neoliberal politics and the divisiveness of mainstream media. For decades, we’ve been told society’s problems are each other’s fault, we’ve been told to kick the welfare-hungry single mothers but meanwhile, we’re giving out billions of dollars in corporate welfare.”
Dan hopes COVID-19 restrictions have been a wake-up call for people directing hate towards minorities or the poor.
“I hope people realise we’re all in the same boat now,” he says. “We’re all a week away or a month away from needing government help.”
When we’re online, there’s a feeling that no-one is watching and that we’re not accountable. But Dan, Toni and hundreds of other online moderators are vetting the rage so we don’t have to be exposed.
“People say things they would never say in the street,” says Toni. “There’s no holding back on the internet. It really brings out the worst of human nature.”