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  • Writer's pictureNelson Sigelman

My Island Is a Social Media Petri Dish

The specter of Covid-19 hovers over Martha’s Vineyard like a swarm of gulls at a Menemsha clambake. My island home, remote but not enough to ward off infection and fear, has the ingredients needed for a study on social media civility in times of stress.

Take about 20,000 year-rounders and an undetermined number of seasonal homeowners seeking refuge from virus hot spots; throw in island spring weather which leans to wind, rain, and cold; tell everyone to quarantine at home; limit social interaction to a masked visit to one of four grocery stores: What you get is a hundred-square-mile social media Petri dish.

Islanders have shown that they are pretty good at handling disruptions caused by occasional hurricanes, power outages, and presidential visits.

Now we get to see how they react to a pandemic. And it’s all playing out on Facebook and in our two newspapers, where most commenters choose to hide behind a screen name — it’s so much easier to insult your neighbor.

I am a member of Islanders Talk, a Facebook group with 15,435 members, when last I looked. That is an astounding number and a testament to the foresight of Lori Robinson Fisher of Edgartown, who created the group in August 2012, as a venue where Islanders could, as she describes it, “hang out and vent, share whatever you want without tourists interrupting.”

Her rules are simple enough and spelled out clearly: “NO POLITICS! No disrespecting others, including the President(S), NO NAME CALLING, no bashing … No F bombs.” You get the idea.

Needless to say, Lori has had her work cut out for her riding herd on a Facebook site that comprises just about the entire year-round social-media-savvy island population, the bulk of whom, prior to quarantine, appeared happy to watch a small nucleus of regular posters grapple with one another over the hot issues or irritants of the day. Or hour, or minute.

Social media is a welcome alternative to Netflix binging, and baking bread, if you can find flour or yeast. But that brings temptation: Why just be an onlooker?

You’re stuck at home. Your spouse, housemates, or dog (cats don’t care about anything but themselves) are tired of hearing your views on the Steamship Authority, Donald Trump, Republicans, Democrats, New Yorkers, islanders, etc. But wait, you can go to the computer where you have more than 15,000 “friends” to whom you can vent.

A thought pops into your head about how to make the island a better place. “I just moved here but …” You type a few quick lines. Then, Post.

You read the latest Trump missive. Your blood pressure spikes. Tap, tap, tap, Post.

A “friend” states a position. You don’t agree. How can he or she be so stupid? Tap, tap, tap, Post.

You saw a person cough in the parking lot and then get into a Tesla with New York plates. Tap, tap, tap, Post.

It’s simply luscious to be able to respond emotionally this way from the comfort of your living room.

A bit of advice. Resist the temptation. Better yet, read a book.

But if you cannot resist the siren’s call there are some tips you might fall back on. They will, I think, help make the Facebook forum a better place to hang around.

Obscenities make you look ignorant. Avoid them. Don’t engage in name-calling. This is a small island. And that insult could come back to bite you when you need a plumber.

If you must jump into a discussion, take a break and reread your comment before you share it with the world. Ask yourself, would I say this if I were sitting in Linda Jeans restaurant?

Do not post something you would not say to your mother, or better yet, your spouse’s mother. (And I mean your current, not your last, spouse’s mother.)

And, for God’s sake, use spell check. If you’re to lazy to correct words underlined in read, why should I take your advise about anything?

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