Weston shows the bucolic benefits of corporate-sponsored communality. The presence of Arvida, the city's main developer, is evident everywhere: the muted luxury of the homes, the carefully trimmed hedges, and the tidy appearance of nearly every street corner. The very welcome signs planted at the main entrances bear the logo "An Arvida Community" in three-inch-tall metal letters. Designers obviously mulled every detail before bricks were laid or the town voted to incorporate on September 3, 1996.
Along with Arvida's meticulous planning of the physical site in West Broward came a virtual Weston: an electronic town hall and discussion board called TownTalk.com, which the city shares with three other Arvida-planned communities in Florida: Southwood near Tallahassee, St. Johns Golf & Country Club near Jacksonville, and Victoria Park near Deland. It would appear a tribute to Arvida's pacifying influence that on TownTalk, there's hardly a whisper of dissent.
But a different Weston bubbles up on NotCrap.com, the freewheeling alternative to TownTalk set up by attorney Michael Klein. In NotCrap's Weston, kids poop in the public pools, politicians hog the spotlight, and residents bitterly debate Florida's schools.
Then there are complaints about the cops.
"Is our police chief insane? Has he lost his marbles? Does he have any management skills?
"At this present time 10 officers are hiding behind the barricades at Weston Hills Boulevard and Arvida Parkway sandbagging a portable "No left turn' sign they placed in the roadway prohibiting ANYONE from entering Weston Hills from Arvida Parkway. They have violators' cars lined up for two blocks waiting to receive citations. ARE THEY CRAZY!!!!! Ten friggin' officers!!!! Morons!!!!!! Instead of hiding behind the barricades like COWARDS all they need to do would be assign one officer to direct traffic so that the dozens of confused motorists would not fall into their TRAP!!!! BSO YOU ARE COWARDS AND CADS!!!! BSO needs to cram those pavers up their butts sideways. Why is our chief allowing this hick-town tactic? TEN COWARDLY OFFICERS pouncing on confused motorists, when BSO is causing the confusion."
So wrote "Michele" on the evening of October 16. Complaints quickly followed from a dozen other screen names, saying that police were hiding in the bushes and jumping out to ambush unwary motorists. Police brought water jugs and sandwiches to make a day of it, tying up traffic for hours, people wrote in to say.
Among the readers was Weston Commissioner Barbara Herrera-Hill. "As soon as I read that thread, I immediately contacted the city manager, who contacted the Broward Sheriff's Office, who contacted the chief of police here in Weston," she says. Deputies were there because drivers had ignored a flashing message board and signs, according to BSO spokeswoman Cheryl Stopnick. "Aside from a couple of apparently disgruntled people on the Website, we've had no complaints," Stopnick says.
By the time the police chief heard Herrera-Hill's complaint, the trap was gone. But people had their say, and Herrera-Hill listened. Elected to the Weston City Commission in March, Herrera-Hill credits NotCrap.com with spreading her name and views and giving her a peek inside voters' heads. In fact, she says the notoriety she gained from posting on NotCrap with playing a big role in her election.
Complaints aren't the only fare on NotCrap. Among the 5000 or so postings are discussion threads on the Taliban and lists of items for sale. Most of the 364 registered users have pseudonyms: Yogamom, Jungle Jim, Got milk?, ears of corn. Klein is sure that many NotCrap users have more than one screen name. "It could be 200 people. Some people think it's four," he laughs. And he's sure that lurkers -- who read others' notes but never post their own -- far outnumber registered users. On NotCrap, anyone can post anonymously, and not even Klein knows who they are.
That's just what Klein wanted when he set up the site. The 37-year-old got his inspiration from hardocp.com, a technology Website that started a technical discussion board that branched out into computer hardware reviews, political rants, and personal messages. Half a million posts later, "it's turned into a community of people who really care about each other," Klein says.
Klein was looking for a similar community when he; his wife, Karen; and their two daughters found a $200,000 house on a cul-de-sac in a gated community in Weston. In June 1998, they moved in and settled into a life that Klein loves. "I really never found anything wrong in Weston that I felt I needed to start a bulletin board for," he says. "But I wanted to find out more about what was going on in Weston." So he logged on to TownTalk and was quickly disappointed by what he considered to be an intrusive registration process. TownTalk requires its users to give Arvida their full names and addresses, home and work phones, and e-mail addresses. Klein figured that lack of privacy cut down on open debate.
Indeed, TownTalk doesn't have many users; fewer than two dozen posts have appeared on Weston's part of the site in the past two months, and the view counter shows that not many others have read them. Shirley Wilson, who oversees TownTalk.com for Arvida's marketing department, says the registration policy shouldn't be blamed for a lack of discussion. "I think that people are very comfortable with that," she says. As a marketing tool, she asserts, the purpose of TownTalk is to promote Arvida.
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.
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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."