Most everybody by now knows that the social media program Facebook can be a major time-eater. It’s easier than it may seem to get consumed by the online avalanche of trivial posts about all kinds of information from all kinds of “friends.”
Just when you might have wondered what the next useful aspect of Facebook might be, along comes the latest phenomenon in an undeniably phenomenal online program: nostalgia, Internet style.
Less than two weeks ago, I received an email notification that I had been added to a group called “If you ever lived in Walnut Ridge or Hoxie . . .”
Within moments, I began receiving email notifications of posts to that group. By nightfall, my inbox was stuffed.
Over the next several days, I had trouble finding my regular emails among the onslaught of Facebook notifications. Even worse, it was almost impossible to simply delete them because I was inexplicably drawn into this online stroll down memory lane.
I always wondered whether anything viral from my old hometown would ever populate the Internet, and sure enough I got a fine introduction to just how quickly something can spread online.
Within just a few days, the number of members of the “If you ever lived in Walnut Ridge or Hoxie . . .” group leapt from a handful to 500. Then it rapidly surpassed 1,000, then 1,200 and 1,500. I saw posts at all hours as well, some as late as the wee hours of 2 or 3 a.m., others as early as 4 or 5 in the morning.
As I write, the member total is 1,700. That’s pretty impressive since the combined population for the towns is only about 8,000.
Those members-spread out in age and location-have generated 2,265 posts, which in turn have been commented on countless times (some posts have 20 or more comments).
I also discovered that my little childhood corner of Arkansas is far from alone when it comes to hometown memories being shared by Facebook friends long since separated. In addition to the “If you ever lived in . . .” string, there’s also a “You know you’re from . . .” category of groups, both of which unite Facebook users far and near, old and young in nostalgia.
Just in the last couple of weeks, groups have popped up for Jonesboro, North Little Rock, Tuckerman, Forrest City, Rogers, Atkins, Mansfield, Fort Smith, and the list keeps growing. Across the nation, the trend has spread like wildfire, with groups in cities and towns ranging from metro areas like St. Louis and Detroit and Atlanta to tiny hamlets like Reynolds, Georgia (population 1,063).
I haven’t taken the time to read the posts of any cities other than the ones where I grew up and now live, but I have a feeling that I would see similar posts. Certainly the allure of these Facebook groups strike a common chord in readers, which is the fact that childhood experiences and memories figure prominently in shaping adult lives.
Reading through the posts and comments about Walnut Ridge and Hoxie, for example, unearthed a treasure of forgotten memories in me. Memories of people, places and events that were linked by the powerful force of community.
Perhaps the most notable revelation of my time spent reading the posts these past few days has been watching which topics were mentioned most often.
Not surprisingly, school activities and teachers were popular subjects, since K-12 education is a major part of children’s lives. A more interesting observation, however, was how frequently local merchants and businesses were recalled.
City planners all over would do well to spend a few hours studying these posts, which indicate in the raw, unfiltered recollections of residents how critically important education and commerce are in the sustenance of small towns in rural Arkansas.
Readers recalled hardware, jewelry and dime stores. They commented on diners, drive-ins and barbershops. The fabric of a thriving community is cross-woven with key relationships — teacher-student, merchant-customer, employer-employee — in which a larger proportion of local resources are constantly circulating and re-circulating.
Equally telling is the nearly universal remembered experiences about the relatively crime-free days of yesteryear. Almost to a respondent, those posting comments about growing up in the decades before the late 1980s talked about freely roaming the town streets on a bicycle-what worrisome parent today would turn a 12-year-old loose till sundown, even with a cell phone?
It’s true that change will always be with us, but it’s equally true that some things never change. The best planners understand both truths, and reconcile them with an eye toward constant improvement. We should welcome the changes that make things better, and try to prevent those that make things worse.
There are valuable insights to be gained from reading these reminiscences, which can be used to strengthen communities. But even if all you do is enjoy the memories, there’s value in that, too. Especially since Facebook is free.
Cherish a rare instance where you get more than what you pay for.