Wilton is a town of engaged, smart, resourceful people. Imagine if you could harness all that engaging, intelligent resourcefulness in one place, you’d be able to find, do, access, reach and learn just about anything.
Now imagine that one place on Facebook. You’d have to call it “Wilton CT 411.”
Which is exactly what Andrea Topalian did call it nine months ago when she created the successful group page, “Wilton CT 411.” The closed group page on Facebook is exclusively for Wilton residents to post requests for recommendations for local service providers or products, share community news and events (for non-profit organizations only), post local job requests and ask questions of Wilton neighbors.
“I love Wilton, I love the community environment, but everyone is so spread out. Wilton’s Moms’ Club had an email group for questions and answers, but it’s only open to past and present members. I thought if we could get this same support on a larger scale, more members, more answers to questions, it’s a way people can get the word out quickly, it can help one another, it’s a fast way to get answers to a question. It’s a fast modern way people can get connected.”
Once Topalian got the page set up, get connected is exactly people did. Helped by an influx of new residents, plus the trend of how people rely on the social network to communicate, 411 (as it’s affectionately known) has now become a must-use resource for people who live in Wilton, with 1,089 members (as of press time), which tends to increase by a couple new members every day.
And boy, do they use the page, posting, answering and recommending.
“You have a good question worth answering? You’re going to get on average 10 answers immediately. Some people stop looking for answers elsewhere. It’s become what it is because of the group members and how willing they are to share their resources,” Topalian said.
Whether 411 user are active, regularly giving answers and posting questions, or simply ‘lurking’ to find good community tips, it’s useful.
“There are people who tell me, ‘I use it all the time.’ And I say, ‘I never see you on it.’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, but I get all the information there, I just write it all down.’”
Maintaining guidelines important to Topalian: no advertising, no negativity, no shout outs
As page administrator, Topalian (in conjunction with four other Wilton women who have volunteered to help her) oversees what people post, using a set of guidelines for page behavior and etiquette that she asks all members to follow. It’s rare, but from time to time she deletes comments from group members who overstep the guidelines she’s set up.
“People say it’s a lot of rules, but honestly it’s broken down into two rules: Be nice, and don’t advertise. That’s it.”
Her reason for the guidelines? “I didn’t want it to be like other social media that turns into a gossip hub or a negative place where people can attack other people. I wanted it to be pure, to provide the benefits of social media without the negative side. It’s also just who I am—I don’t like conflict or criticism; I’m not a political person, and I don’t take sides. That makes me uncomfortable. I really wanted it to stay a resource, and I was afraid that negativity would just scare people away. I noticed on those few days when it actually got controversial, good people leave. When you start to have criticisms, sarcasm, political strife, people get uncomfortable and they don’t want to be there. There are so many other places for that online. There isn’t a place for what we have on 411. That’s what makes it special, so yeah, I’m going to protect it! It’s too valuable a resource.”
One difficult day for the Wilton 411 community was the day teacher placements were published by the schools. Parents posted trying to connect to other parents with children in the same class—“Anyone in Mrs. So-and-so’s class?” But relatively quickly–perhaps as is human nature–the posts started to morph into requests for opinions about the teachers—“Who knows Ms. So-and-so? Good or bad?” That’s when some people worried that teachers’ being discussed in an open, albeit private, forum was troubling, and that it verged on digital bullying. Several group members complained to Topalian.
She agreed, and banned the teacher subject from the page. “People get hurt, and I don’t like for people to get hurt. We don’t need to be bad-mouthing teachers, especially. Or anyone for that matter. I once had a bad situation with a doctor. He might have been fine with someone else, but for me and my situation he was not a good choice. But I would not have posted that on 411. Does everyone need to know that? No. I private messaged instead,” Topalian said.
So what explains her drawing the line at advertising and not allowing it on the page? And what about ‘shout-outs,’ especially those that are unsolicited by anyone looking for a specific recommendation?
“We get bombarded with advertising everywhere we go. I have a business. Would l like to post about it? Absolutely. Will I? Absolutely not. If they want me, they’ll find me. If someone asks for a good photographer and someone wants to recommend me, or another photographer, great. But don’t just give random shout-outs. I like to give shout-outs, but on my personal page. That was a tough one for me, the main reason I set it that way was because I know people will start doing it for friends, and I’d have to spend all my time deciding what’s a shout out and what’s an advertisement. So I just said, no shout-outs.”
As page admin, Topalian checks to make sure people who want to be members actually live in Wilton. “I feel safer with Wilton-only members. Part of what makes it special is that it’s just Wilton residents. There are a couple former Wilton residents, they still have friends here and they’re still a part of the community. There are business owners who are part of it.”
Part of her rationale on that requirement is to manage the size of the group, and more importantly, to safeguard its members:
“I’m trying to keep a manageable size because people are sharing, a lot. And I want them to share it just with neighbors. At the same time, people do need to be careful, too. Be careful what you post. It’s still social media, and it’s 1,100 people. You might know 50 if you’re lucky. That’s over 1,000 strangers you’re sharing information with. They’re adults and they have the ability to decide what they share, keeping in mind privacy and social media.”
Which was a reason the decision was made to not allow children to be members. “There’s information on 411 that kids probably shouldn’t see about other kids. I’m close to that delete button. Sometimes even I don’t think about what I should say. I deleted a comment I made once, after someone pointed out that I could have said it in a nicer way.”
411’s huge benefit to the community
Topalian realizes how the page has been a boon to local businesses. “Local Wilton stores have thanked me, saying they’ve gotten a lot of business from 411. They say people mention it all the time.”
Lynn Flaster, owner of Fraiche Salon, said the page has been key to getting established in the market. “Wilton 411 has been monumental in helping us launch Fraiche Hair Salon. Since the key to success for so many businesses depends on word-of-mouth, we are ever so grateful for our loyal clients who continue to praise our salon on the site.”
Susan Schmitt, owner of the Painted Cookie, agreed, both as a Wilton resident who uses the site and as a business owner in town. “Wilton 411 is my ‘go to’ when looking for a particular service (i.e. appliance repair or painters) and doctors. The most valuable for me is the school networking. I have a junior in high school this year and got great info from parents who have already done the SAT and ACT tests. Also for driving school, we chose ours for our son through the recommendations on 411,” she said. “My husband has gotten several inquiries and a couple of jobs for his carpentry business through referrals and of course people have come into the shop after hearing recommendations and learning about us being nut free. But I also enjoy being able to help someone locate info they are asking about, and it has become a ‘staple’ for me on Facebook. We are a community on 411 and I think in a time where we don’t always know our neighbors on our streets as much as our parents generation, we are meeting people instead on 411.”
Just like business owners, residents see the benefits too. Loralyn Cropper said, “I found super solutions to my problem last spring, when my husband and I were so busy with spring sports and work that we couldn’t cook, I reached out to find someone to make meals and had four people respond. I found someone who saved the day, helped feed the family and add back some minutes to our hectic family life.”
Hearing that makes the time and effort Topalian puts in as administrator all worth it.
“Doing this, it fulfills who I am. I’m so excited to see what’s happening on the page. That’s not just because of me, that’s really the environment we all created. I think that’s what makes it special. I’m happy if people think it’s useful and indispensable. I feel like it’s my community service; it’s doing good without anything in it for me, except the reward of people being happy. When you tell me, ‘I found a new dentist here in Wilton, so I don’t have to drive 30 minutes to Fairfield,’ that’s what’s in it for me—it helped improve the quality of your life.”
If you’re not yet a member of ‘Wilton 411′ on Facebook, what are you waiting for? Send a request to join via Facebook.