How one Montreal woman's Facebook group became an unlikely place for Torontonians to group together.
Community is inherently voyeuristic. People watch and whisper about mundane snapshots because it reinforces a kind of humane participation in the collective everyday; we are all moving parts in the same clumsy machine and, hell yes, we talk about it. Small towns can’t keep secrets and big cities can’t help but turn into clumps of small towns.
It was this observation that led Ramona Flowers (real name Chantal Lefebvre), 28, to start the Facebook group “What Did You See On The Street Today?” in July 2014. One-third group documentary, one-third interactive art project, and one-third gossip board, the group is over 2,200 members strong and includes people from all over the world. For whatever reason, though, its Toronto contingency is by far the strongest. (Flowers herself lives in Montreal.) Notably, the group’s members span social groups, age, class and ethnicity, showing a degree of heterogeneity rarely found in a self-organized collective space.
We spoke with Flowers about the group’s genesis and the alchemy of online community.
Torontoist: What’s your personal background?
I’m originally from Welland, Ontario. I am an artist of many sorts, but my education is in graphic design and illustration. Right now, I’m working on personal projects involving digital collage and curating an upcoming art exhibit while attending French classes full time.
What gave you the idea to start a Facebook group inviting people to share their day-to-day observations?
I had to live without the privilege of a smartphone for a while, and it made me realize how much people live in their screens and are oblivious to what is going on around them. (They are often a common topic of the group themselves.) I’d often post things on my personal Facebook page about things I would see “on the street”; I love to tell stories and write creatively, and the comments from my friends were always hilarious. After a few months of thinking about how cool it would be to start a Facebook page for the same thing, I started the group “What Did You See On The Street Today?” in July 2014 to post exactly that, with the main rule of there being no photos allowed. Technology and the internet dominate us with images every day whether we like it or not, so it’s also an homage to the written word, which is a very big part of the purpose.
It’s interesting how the group become so Toronto-centric when you live in Montreal.
I lived in Toronto for a few years, then moved to Montreal in May 2013. Many of the contributors are my friends from when I lived there, and my friends’ friends, their extended circles, etc. The group is international and we get posts from all over the world, and from many different age groups and backgrounds, but the demographic I belong to in Toronto definitely accounts for a huge percentage.
Are you surprised it’s so popular?
I’m more surprised by the community it has formed. It’s pretty strong. There are many consistent posters and commenters, there are running jokes, and the more dedicated contributors help us moderate newcomers and rule-breakers. I’ve had to add four other admins (two of them who live in Toronto) to help moderate the group since it’s grown so large, and continues to grow. It quickly became something I couldn’t control. Shout-outs to them because the group wouldn’t be possible without their efforts.
Do you plan on doing anything with it? A book? An art project?
I had it in mind as an art project when I started it, but it became something on its own entirely. I’ve thought about it as a possible book, or making a Tumblr of the best posts, etc. but didn’t because of privacy reasons. Would I blur out the names? What if they want their names published? Would I ask every single person? How would I go about doing this? I would have to ask the group what they thought about it, so maybe I’ll revisit this in the future.
What have been some of your favourite posts or “moments”?
The Streetcar Driver. Whoever this lovely soul is, many people have posted and continue to post about him telling jokes to the passengers, waiting for people, urging passengers to clap and cheer when new people come aboard, singing, saying really nice things to everyone, etc. He makes everyone’s day. We don’t know his identity, but we’ve discussed finding out.
There are rules in the group against things like racism, homophobia, sexism/misogyny, and generally being a jerk, etc. The hardest part about maintaining this group is keeping up with inevitable comment wars, deleting rule-breaking posts, kicking and banning people. Some pretty controversial stuff gets discussed. The group was not created to make fun of or be mean to people. Other than that, my least favourite kind of posts are when people write about what happened to them on the street. It’s against the rules and are deleted right away. The point of the group is what you see in society as a third party, things that have nothing to do with you personally.