By MAGGIE MENDERSKI
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
HANNIBAL, Mo. -- A dozen city council meetings will pass without public comment, but Facebook fires up with each local issue.
James Grisham had seen the phenomena repeat itself in Hannibal, and he wanted to create a modern mouthpiece for his community. Grisham believes today's society rarely has time to or interest in attending public meetings. He saw that voicing opinions often stopped after personal conversations or remained scattered thin throughout individual social media.
So on Sept. 19 he created a Facebook group called "Things Happening in Hannibal, Mo." where he hoped the public could talk without feeling constrained by time or insecurities.
"People are willing to post their ideas online," Grisham said. "But many are not willing to speak openly in person."
The group has grown dramatically in the past few months. It reached the 200-member mark on Dec. 4 and is still gaining momentum. In early March, it surpassed 550 members, and Grisham said lately he's received about 10 to 15 requests for membership per day.
Grisham links to stories from local media outlets daily, but he also poses questions for the groups followers. He prompts discussions on construction projects and pending weather. Meanwhile his followers have questions of their own. They want to know where to find the best plumbers in town, how to obtain a new driver's license or the most reliable person to shovel snow from a driveway.
Lou Barta, who serves as one of four administrators, said the group has attracted adults of all age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds. The variety in individuals has created diversity in conversations.
"This is the type of social media that crosses generationally," Barta said. "There's a real wide, wide variety of people there."
Barta says having to use real names on Facebook has given the group a sense of legitimacy. Grisham allows individuals to share all opinions as long as they avoid discrimination regarding race, gender or religion. Grisham said his followers have kept things respectable and that he's only had to intervene a handful of times.
Families have used the page to find lost dogs or to let the community know someone is celebrating a milestone birthday. The page has hosted thank you messages citing good Samaritans who helped an elderly man in a ditch or the Hannibal Police Department for a quick response time.
"This group has provided more community awareness just by its existence," Barta said.
Grisham hopes the group encourages individuals to take a greater pride in the community and find ways to clean up the crumbling parts of Hannibal. Barta said the group comments most on posts about bringing new businesses and jobs to town.
As the group continues to grow, Grisham also hopes it might spur enough activism to encourage development in the community. He's already discussed creating a social event in a park this spring to move the opinions from the comfort of a computer screen into live conversations.
"I want to promote this group so each and every person in Hannibal can voice their opinion," Grisham said.