Creating community on the web

06/28/2012

Do you need a new Macbook power adapter, a mohair throw blanket, or a Spanish interpreter to accompany you to traffic court?

The West Marin Commons’ online Commons Connect forums have been helping local birds of a feather flock together via its Google groups — West Marin Share, Soapbox, Marketplace and Over The Hill Gang — by harnessing the power of community to hitch rides, sell old bikes, find freebies and swap information and opinions on everything from radio to road kill.

But now, issues over Internet privacy and whether or not members should be allowed to post anonymously have gotten some residents’ feathers ruffled. And with a new, Google-free website set to launch this week, even more changes are afoot.

The West Marin Commons is a community project begun in 2006 by Elizabeth Barnet and the late Jonathon Rowe, among others, under the umbrella of the nonprofit On the Commons. That organization, itself a reincarnation of the former Tomales Bay Institute think tank, was created to examine the issue of a community “commons” — what is it, what does ours look like, and how do we measure it.

“The term is a kind of catchall and can be interpreted in different ways,” Ms. Barnet said. The organization manages the online groups, plus Commons Spaces (communal property), and Commons Celebrations (events).

The first online forum was started in 2007 by now moderator Murray Suid, with the intent of finding people willing to carpool or run errands “over the hill” – i.e., in East Marin. The reference to aging was not lost on the original members, and after Mr. Suid approached On the Commons to facilitate the group, the Over The Hill Gang was born.

But as the forum gained in popularity, acts of generosity other than picking up neighbors’ dry cleaning or carpooling to Costco were in need of an outlet. Thus came West Marin Share, for finding or giving away stuff for free, then Soapbox, a discussion forum, and finally West Marin Marketplace, for transactions involving money.

Five volunteer moderators — Ms. Barnet, Mr. Suid, Josh Luftig, Susan Brayton and David Clarkson — keep an eye on proceedings, and have only seldom removed members from groups for misbehavior — for what, in the broader waters of the Internet, is called trolling.

And that’s the key difference of the West Marin Commons forums: unlike other free listing sites such as Craigslist, members cannot post anonymously. Users must at least post under a “nickname,” and many if not most of the participants use their real names, a practice that is 
encouraged.

“Soapbox is about personal opinions, and I think this is where the issue of identity raises anxieties,” Inverness resident and county planning commissioner Wade Holland wrote. “I guess I’m somewhat inclined to suggest that if you aren’t comfortable with standing behind what you post, you perhaps shouldn’t be posting it in the first place.”

Indeed, in an energetic discussion thread begun last week, members urged that real names should be required in the same spirit of community and ownership that West Marin Commons purports to represent.

But others pointed out that it’s hard to tell if a person truly is who they say they are — even if a full “real name” is used. This reporter easily created a second account using a false name and identity, and a third account using the name of a real community member (with that person’s permission) with a fake email address created expressly for that purpose. It’s a reminder of just how easily our identities can be hidden  — and stolen — in the online world.

Other members suggested using a variety of “invitation only” systems as a way to perform due diligence on members’ identities. However, a healthy contingent argued that anonymity must be allowed for the sake of the community.

“People are very strongly opinionated out here regarding a lot of divisive issues,” West Marin resident Ellen Holmes wrote. “Just look at the oyster farm issue.”

Mr. Suid agreed that anonymous posting should be allowed, at least in special circumstances — such as whistle blowing or drawing attention to a controversial 
issue.

“If someone has information of importance to the community but will post it only anonymously, I say post it anonymously,” he said. “[But] requiring [that] posters use their real names is one step in creating a kinder online environment.”

However, Ms. Holmes pointed out that opining on a particular issue, such as pollution from wood stoves, or what should happen to Drakes Bay Oyster Company, could be of value to the public debate, but might prejudice potential employers or landlords against you if your views 
differed.

“Personally, I have been blasted in the past for expressing views and have therefore decided to stay out of the ring most of the time,” she said. “Is that the best thing for the community? I think not.”

Point Reyes Station resident Jonathan Gavzer joked that the privacy debate was starting to remind him of a scene in a Woody Allen movie.

“What he means to say is, ‘Pass the butter,’ but what he says [instead] is, ‘You f---ing ruined my life!’” Mr. Gavzer quipped. “Perhaps we can have a few identities each, and whether you pass the butter or ruin someone’s life can be ascertained by the individual and their opinion of the writer or their alias. Heck, we could even argue with ourselves.”

Another member, who wished to remain anonymous, complained that the moderators were inconsistent, with some too controlling in instances, and too lenient in others.

“Overall they’re allowing too much acrimony,” she said. “I know people who have gone off the forums because it’s too negative.”
Ms. Barnet says the Commons will likely ask people to use their real name, although not necessarily their legal name.

“We hadn’t thought of policing it,” she said. “It will probably be more of an honor system. The reason is to have greater accountability, but we will certainly make exceptions for people who don’t want their identity shared.”

While she’s open to the idea of requiring existing members to vouch for a new recruit, as is done with the Inverness Yacht Club, she doesn’t want the site to be anti-non-resident.

“Over The Hill and Share have been used by people coming into town for conferences,” she said. “How we manage this is something we will work out together.”

Others have been up in arms of late following confusion over which posts were private to members of the groups, and which were searchable on Google. While Share, Over The Hill Gang and Soapbox posts were members only, Marketplace was not — and many were hitting “send” on posts without noticing that the Marketplace box was also checked, even on posts found in different sections.
But Ms. Barnet said confusion like this shouldn’t be an issue with the new site.

“On the new website, the guidelines will be clearer and more up front,” she said. “And thanks to the new format, the privacy options should be easier to navigate. As for me, I would choose higher privacy as a default.”

The project is ever evolving, as Ms. Barnet and others struggle to make the site and groups viable. There’s been talk of introducing advertisements, but both Mr. Suid and Ms. Barnet expressed concern over taking ad revenue away from the media outlets in “a town already split by two papers.”

After the website’s beta version launches this week, it will be a few more weeks before the forums are transferred from Google and become independent, and Ms. Barnet is sure the project will continue and expand under the new design.

“There’s that reciprocity of both giving and receiving,” she said. “We’re providing a kind of social service, but it’s through self-help. We’re giving the community a way to help itself. It’s a study of human nature in many ways, and the notion of the Commons is to encourage that sharing aspect of human nature.”