Free furniture, chopper spottings and dog disputes: Who would volunteer to run a community Facebook group?

Off-leash dogs, uncollected bins, free furniture, lost cats, low-flying helicopter spottings: community Facebook groups are the modern grapevines of Melbourne’s suburbs.

But for the locals who volunteer to run them – tradies, students, mums, councillors, retirees and even real-estate agents – these groups have also become a quasi-accountability mechanism for local politics and a place to thrash out issues in the virtual ‘town square’.

Brendan Corr, admin of the ‘Stonnington – Community Noticeboard’ Facebook page.Credit:Eddie Jim

It’s a big responsibility. Facebook admins wield the power to delete, mute and block contributors; to shape the discourse in their communities; and influence members who can number into the tens of thousands – all while local publications, once the sole gatekeepers of community news, steadily dwindle.

Those who create groups or apply to be administrators are usually motivated by a keen sense of responsibility to the community, according to Melbourne University social media researcher Dr Jennifer Beckett.

“But I’ve also seen people become moderators because they like the power – and that doesn’t usually end well,” she says.

Malvern resident Brendan Corr started to spend more time on Facebook after retiring from a career as an investment banker at age 45 to become a stay-at-home dad.

Frustrated with the tight rules in local ‘Good Karma’ community groups that disallow any posts not related to good deeds, Corr set up the splinter Stonnington – Community Noticeboard in 2021.

Corr takes his duty to the 6500-member group seriously. As well as promoting local businesses and events, he reports on council meetings and decisions to followers who wouldn’t regularly pay attention to local government.

“The [community newspapers] have almost disappeared now,” he says. “Some issues are too small for a major newspaper to report, so we have no other forum.”

“We are essentially a local newspaper now – everyone’s an amateur journalist.”

Corr admits he isn’t “totally impartial” and has been involved in backing certain council projects such as the building of a sports stadium, which caused tension between rival community Facebook groups.

Corr – who was Stonnington council’s Citizen of the Year in 2010 – was removed from a number of other groups in the area after run-ins with their other admins and threats of defamation lawsuits. A councillor was in turn barred from social media after online disputes with Corr.

“I do speak up on certain issues,” he says. “But I don’t discourage opposing views as long as they’re civil though. It’s healthy to allow a civil debate.”

The names of a slew of ‘alternative’ Melbourne community Facebook groups speak to how common it is for rivalries to break out: there’s Elwood 3184 Uncensored, Yarra Valley Noticeboard (not uptight), Kensington Actual Neighbourhood Watch.

Perhaps the most notable are the ‘Fairly Good Karma’ networks in Fawkner, Coburg, Brunswick, and Kensington Actual Good Karma Network, which were all set up in defiance of the zealous rules of the official ‘Good Karma’ pages.

Beckett says there are no rules from Facebook on who can start a group or overarching governing principles beyond Facebook’s Community Standards. Facebook has offered leadership programs in the past and offers some voluntary online courses in governance. In her research, Beckett has found the “most functional” groups tend to have clear guidelines but aren’t overly prescriptive.

”When they’re governed not so much with an iron fist, but a softer form of governance,” she says.

“Those more local community groups, those things can be crazy and they can get bogged down in local politics as well. All the factions in local politics raise their heads.”

There are a plethora of examples of when things go awry in these self-governing spaces.

Admins of the ‘Darebin Residents Group’ on Facebook Tim Holdsworth, Jim Shen and Annette Kalkbrenner.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

The Ngar-go/Fitzroy Neighbourhood Network of 14,000 people was last year taken over by a rogue admin who deleted all other admins and trolled the group for weeks with photos of naked men after a decision to disallow a post about an alleged crime. A Kingston councillor was ordered to pay a Melbourne property developer $205,000 in damages after a court held him liable for the defamatory comments of third parties on the Carrum and Patterson Lakes Forum.

Carmen Lahiff-Jenkins has been one of three admins of the Preston/Reservoir Community Voice for seven years, as well as the admin of the local dog park page in Reservoir and is a rare example of a moderator with a professional background in public policy and governance.

But even for someone with professional experience, things have gone awry in her groups before.

”For me … the ideal way [to run a Facebook community] would be to have diverse community groups with a board and collective making,” she says. “But what ends up happening is that everyone comes to it with different skill sets and what you get is people who think they know best and don’t like how others do it.“

Lahiff-Jenkins, who has previously run in council elections, recently penned a comedic first-person piece in the local publication Rezzadent about a two-year ordeal between her and another admin of her local dog-park Facebook group who wanted to publicly shame the “bad dogs” and “bad owners” of the park that others should “watch out for”.

The issue was eventually resolved after it was revealed the fellow admin turned out to have not visited the park in years, didn’t own a dog or live in the area. Despite the ordeal, Lahiff-Jenkins maintains groups should always have multiple admins.

“Otherwise you end with a really homogenous approach to the pages – usually a white, privileged perspective and that’s problematic.”

Some Facebook groups have become the basis for community activism offline.

Admin of the ‘Community Hub for Keilor’ and local Brimbank councillor Virginia Tachos.Credit:Justin McManus

The Darebin Residents Group, of around 2500 people, has started to make submissions to the local council on behalf of the community, and the admins want to begin regular in-person meet-ups with residents.

“One of the things that motivates me to keep involved is accountability,” says admin Jim Shen, who is currently completing a PhD in health science.

“If you don’t tune into the council meetings, you’re relying on councillors or council pages. How do you get informed properly?”

Residents in the group are hungry for political discourse, he says. They’re as animated about the Voice to Parliament as they are about the Northcote Golf Course saga, the redevelopment of the Preston Market or (you guessed it) dog parks.

“I’m open to criticism, they get stuck into me – I think it actually creates a really robust discussion out of the chamber.”

“COVID conspiracy theorists go straight in the bin, but aside from that we’re pretty lenient [on subject matter],” he says. “People get ample warnings.”

Darebin Residents Group is one group where councillors – including Mayor Julie Williams – post and engage in the sometimes-heated discussions on local issues, something Beckett encouraged local politicians to do.

“If you’re in any way involved with governance in a community then you should be doing it,” she says. “If I set up a community for a brand, one of the first things I would tell a brand is that your CEO and tech people need to get in there.”

In the city’s west, Brimbank councillor Virgina Tachos has inadvertently taken that principle to another level. She’s run the Community hub page for Keilor for a decade, well before she was appointed to the council in 2016.

She says she started the group as an advocacy platform when the then-council under administration was pursuing the sell-off of a number of parks and open spaces.

“We felt there was a real absence of connecting news and finding out about what’s going on, and there was a lot of growing resistance to the administration,” she said.

The group succeeded in stopping the sales going ahead, and 10 years later is now one of the biggest groups in the west, with 7500 members.

Tachos spends 10 to 15 hours a week tending to the online community on top of her council duties, her day job as a disability support worker, and caring for her mother. She considered closing down the page last year before another admin agreed to help. She now has stricter rules, particularly around photos and videos identifying people.

“Social media has the real ability to be really negative,” she said. “It’s got to the point where I don’t allow CCTV because we did it once and someone got wrongly accused and then I thought, ‘I’m up for a lawsuit’.

“There was a murderer on the loose, there had been spottings of him and there was all this fear. Somebody posted something and someone got wrongly accused.”

Tachos is aware of the potential conflict of being a councillor and allowing group members to discuss and criticise council and its decisions.

“I let it go,” she says.

”You are forced to provide an evidence base – and it does make you question yourself.“

Tachos says the pandemic showed how crucial local Facebook groups are for connecting residents.

“Isolation is a real killer in our society and these community pages go a long way in breaking that isolation,” she says.

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