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In This Place

My Island Is a COVID-19 Social Media Petri Dish

Liz Lerner

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

Take about 20,000 year-rounders, and an undetermined number of newly arrived seasonal homeowners seeking refuge from virus hot spots; throw in Vineyard spring weather: wind, rain, and cold; tell everyone to quarantine at home (an Island lifestyle many followed before the virus); limit interaction to occasional trips to one of our four grocery stores – And you get a one 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 in recent history, frequent presidential, and ex-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 Island 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 thusly: “NO POLITICS! No disrespecting others, including the President(S), NO NAME CALLING, no bashing … No F bombs.”

But, 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 ferry service, Donald Trump, Republicans, Democrats, New Yorkers, islanders, etc. But wait, all you have to do is go to the computer where you have more than 15,000 “friends” to whom you can vent.

Needless to say, Ms. Fisher 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.

For weeks, self-quarantine-ing has inspired among islanders an unprecedented level of bread baking (the flour shelves in our local markets are bare and yeast is non-existent). But, how much bread can a person eat?

Social media has become a welcome alternative to Netflix binging. And cooped up islanders, curious and with too much time on their hands, are taking to Facebook to see what others are talking about.

But that brings temptation: Why just be an onlooker?

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 to my fellow islanders (and anyone else living in a small intimate community where you actually know your neighbors). 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 — and help maintain a spirit of neighborliness.

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 bathroom 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 too lazy too correct words underlined in red, why should I take your advice about anything?


Nelson Sigelman is the author of Martha’s Vineyard Outdoors, fishing, hunting and avoiding divorce on a small Island, and Martha’s Fish Tales. He lives in Vineyard Haven.