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A summer inside Auckland's Facebook community groups
Illustration by Natasha Vermeulen.

A summer inside Auckland's Facebook community groups

Thank you, neighbour.

It was the seductive summer scene that caught my eye immediately, mid-scroll. “Thumb-stopping content,” I remember some guy in a suit saying once. The photo was of a woman’s hand elegantly presenting an ornate crystal platter of fresh fruits against a soft-focus Ōrewa Beach backdrop. On the plate sat dewy watermelon, glistening grapes and an orange sliced into a blossoming flower. Atop the fruit, a Cadbury Twirl had been placed diagonally.

“Pic for attention,” the caption read. “I’m looking for a GIB stopper.”

Joining more than 50 Facebook community groups had begun as a work thing, but I soon realised that nobody was paying me at 11pm on a Tuesday to be telling a stranger in Glendene to hang out their dirty laundry to attract their wandering cat home. Nor was anybody paying me to negotiate with a man with an impossibly small profile pic in Flat Bush over a cashie to convert my old mini DV tapes. In fact, by all accounts, I was paying him.

Since reactivating my Facebook account to potter around in Auckland’s many “community” and “grapevine” groups (admittedly two or three years after their zenith), the differences between the two genres have become clearer. The larger “mainstream” community groups, often heavily moderated and often headline-making — should Pt Chev cancel Halloween? — contain much stricter rules of engagement and lengthy, wordy debates about Unitary Plans.

But if you want a real trip, pop by your local grapevine group. With a groovy open-door policy and lax admin presence, the range of content vibes exactly like that clip of Charles Manson where he does 40 different faces in five seconds and then whispers, “I am nobody”. One minute you’re being instructed to stare at a pattern of black-and-white lines and shake your head until you see Neil Patrick Harris, the next you are being confronted with an image of a frozen dead lorikeet.

All day and all night, there’s barely a moment of reprieve. Someone’s urgently in need of The Secret DVD, someone else needs to book a scissor cut for their pomeranian. “Can anyone do a single cornrow in my daughter’s hair? Please PM.” For every lost wallet, there’s a found handbag. Or, more specifically, “found on the corner of Hoteo Avenue — won’t be touching it for hygiene reasons”. Free fish, free dreamcatchers, free kittens and, of course, a dash of #FreeBritney.

It’s easy enough to focus on these bizarro elements until you actually really need to reach the people in your area quickly. There are enough missing-people announcements, funeral postings and burglary pleas to remind you constantly that these weird online clusters are — unless you want to sign up for Neighbourly emails for the rest of your life or, god forbid, talk to your neighbours — the best chance we’ve got at connecting with our immediate communities.

It happened to me after last year. I’d sworn off the platform entirely, until one grey Sunday when I awoke to realise my beloved cat Zelda had been gone for more than 24 hours. The last time she was missing for anything close to that was when she got stuck up our neighbour’s avocado tree during lockdown, her ridiculous mew bellowing through the quiet street and me bashfully bursting bubbles to borrow ladders to coax her down. Something Was Up.

With a frozen lorikeet lodged in my throat, I reactivated my Facebook account and posted a photo of her on the Mt Albert community page. MISSING. In less than a minute, three dots appeared. Someone was typing. I shut my eyes for as long as I could, before opening them to see one new comment. “I’ve sent you a DM,” a young woman sipping from a cocktail in her profile picture had commented, followed by a sad face emoji with a single tear. “I’m sorry.”

I read each letter, and then each word, but my brain refused to allow me to process the whole message. The woman sipping the cocktail had seen a cat that looked like my Zelda, lifeless, on the side of Mt Albert Rd near Summit Drive, but hadn’t been able to stop on the way to work. Within 10 minutes, I’d found my little cat’s furry body, where someone else had clearly placed her into a visible spot and left a bunch of picked flowers on her soft, still belly.

Later that day, through ugly tears and snot leaking onto the trackpad, I returned to the page to try to find and thank the stranger who had gone out of their way to selflessly deal with our lovely dead cat. The post was flooded with comments, a stream of heart emojis and gifs. You don’t think you need a cartoon of a jar pouring out tiny hearts with the caption “All my love for you” until you really, really, do. There aren’t enough “care” reactions in the world, of course, but it all helped.

I’ll probably be getting off Facebook again as soon as I’m done with this “work thing”, but I already feel wistful about losing the weird and often wonderful community chatter. Because that extremely wretched morning would have been tenfold worse had it not been for that page. I’ve since witnessed hundreds of people’s wretched mornings, afternoons and evenings in groups across the city — and, thankfully, just as many people helping.

I never found the kind person who cared for our cat that day, but I sometimes like to scroll through the page and imagine who they could be. Maybe the person who posted the crack-up photo of the parallel park? Or maybe the one giving away shrubs from their garden? Or, if I look closely between the lines and move my head fast enough, perhaps they were simply Neil Patrick Harris all along?

Whoever it was, thank you, neighbour. You can borrow my DVD of The Secret anytime.

Society