By Michael E. Miller
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Civic discussion channeled through a corporate promotional tool wasn't quite what Klein was expecting. "It just didn't seem logical that the developer and the planner of the city would allow things to get posted that were not in their best interest," he muses. "I said, "This is absurd. I've been playing with computers since the late '70s. I gotta be able to do this better.'"
So a year and a half ago, Klein agreed to pay $200 per year for Web space from a host in Canada, got some free bulletin board software, and installed Microsoft Front Page on his computer. The process took about a week. (The name NotCrap has nothing to do with Klein's opinion of Weston or Arvida; he bought the domain name more than a year before he set up the site, planning then on building a product- and service-review site.)
Six months ago, Klein bought more storage space on the Canadian company's server to keep up with the thousands of postings. The site earns him nothing, it carries no ads, and it's not listed on search engines, Klein says. He wants to keep it just for Weston residents. "Really, I don't know any other way to communicate in a city. There's no more town hall meetings. When a city hits 50 or 60 thousand, there's no grapevine." (Weston's population is about 53,000, according to the 2000 Census.)
That's where NotCrap comes in and where it's essentially different from its model, hardocp.com. Instead of people forming an on-line community, NotCrap is the result of a community -- Weston -- going on-line. "It's where I get my Weston news from," Klein says. "There's really no other place to get it." Weston's local newspapers, the Gazette and Western Express, are published only once a month. The big dailies, the Sun-Sentinel and Herald, don't offer much coverage of local political squabbles, the very meat and drink of NotCrap, Klein complains. "The newspapers around here, especially with what's going on now, are too busy to worry about a couple of thousand dollars going missing in Weston. But people in Weston are interested in it."
Not everyone's a NotCrap fan. City Commissioner Edwin Jacobson says he used to check it regularly but now pays no attention to it. "I watched it for a little while, and it became very apparent to me that the people who are putting their remarks on -- using the phony names or anonymously -- that you can't get a true picture of what people think," he says. "It makes it available for every dirty trick in the book, and you're safe to do it because nobody knows who you are." During last March's election, Jacobson says, he suspects candidates and their associates used the site's anonymity to smear opponents.
Klein agrees that tempers flared during the last election. "It brought out the best and worst in people," he says, adding that he deleted the gratuitously offensive posts. The strong emotions just show how important the site has become for its readers.
Klein says he has no interest in politics. But his site's users do, and that's what Herrera-Hill values. "Because of the anonymity, people very frequently express exactly how they feel" as well as pass on their neighbors' views and what they may have overheard in the checkout line, she says. "I don't turn my nose up at that. I think it's very, very important."
Cary Keshen, who writes a monthly column for the Western Express, changed from a NotCrap poster to a lurker about a month ago, when the debate got too hot. "There's been a number of times I've gotten off of there and my stomach was just churning. And I'd think to myself, "Why am I doing this?'" But he still checks the site several times a week and admits he's never used TownTalk's forum even though he knows about it.
To Herrera-Hill, though, a good on-line brawl is just a sign that the issues should be taken seriously. "It doesn't reach the city in its entirety, but it reaches the people who care enough to get on-line and give their opinions -- and those people are likely voters," she says. "I can tell you without a doubt that NotCrap is very important for politics in Weston."