Ask Patrick Pluscht about a time when social media made a difference in the lives of his neighbors at Wind River Estates, and he will tell you about a time in April when a string of car burglaries upset their peaceful community in south Denton.
Pluscht was the first resident to notice the break-ins after several items went missing from the console of his car. Immediately, he went to the neighborhood’s Facebook page, and spread the word about the incident, so residents would be on alert.
Days later, another car was burglarized and this neighbor turned to Facebook to inform the community that the thieves must have been in a big hurry: They had left behind some items stolen from another car burglary. A third neighbor read the post and realized it was the same property taken from his car. Because of Wind River Estates’ Facebook page, he recovered his property.
“I like how it was put on a public forum,” Pluscht said. “Here was an issue that we were dealing with in our neighborhood, and you could see this neighbor helping out another, trying to piece the theft together.”
Wind River Estates, aside from its Facebook page, maintains an official website and two other social media outlets — Twitter and a Yahoo forum group that Pluscht moderates — to keep the residents of this family-centric community connected to each other.
Residents see it as a bit of a social experiment, using a virtual community to create a real sense of community.
Facebook alone connects nearly one-fourth of the neighborhood’s 430 homes, and social media has been used to solve crimes, find missing pets and promote neighborhood events.
“It’s used as an outlet for information, feedback and pleas for help,” said Steve Sumners, vice president of the Wind River Estates homeowners association and the moderator of its Facebook group. “When it gets down to it, it’s about the neighbors helping each other out and this provides kind of a modern venue for that.”
Other neighborhoods may have Facebook pages, but Sumners believes Wind River Estates’ social media sites have evolved into something unique because they remain “positive and neighborly.”
That wasn’t always the case. In 1998, when Wind River Estates was built, an unofficial website used as a neighborhood forum was poorly moderated. It was shut down after it became a venue for residents’ complaints and bickering. Summers hoped to minimize that kind of negative behavior when he created the neighborhood’s Facebook page in 2008.
Sumners knows people check Wind River Estates’ Facebook page more often than they do the neighborhood’s official Website, so he uses the group to provide up-to-date neighborhood information, to post crime watch updates, weather reports, trash pick-up reminders and agendas for upcoming homeowners association meetings.
Resident Lisa Hackler uses the Facebook group to post “lost dog” pictures to help neighbors reunite with their pets.
“My neighbor’s Pomeranian ran out of her house and was gone for about 24 hours, so she called me and asked me to post a picture of the dog on the Facebook page,” Hackler recalled. “About a day after I posted it, a lady who found it called me.”
Hackler went to the woman’s house and picked up the dog, returning it to her grateful neighbor.
Residents such as Stephanie Mueller, who want to give back to the community, use social media to learn about volunteer opportunities.
“We had an Easter Egg hunt, for example. I don’t have kids, so I wouldn’t have normally volunteered,” said Mueller. “But I saw the notice on Facebook asking for volunteers, so I chose to. It definitely contributes to making the community more involved.”
Sumners still remains concerned about residents using social media negatively, recognizing they might find it easier to vent their frustrations online than face to face.
“When I see someone that’s having a problem, I try to pull them to the side and address it and help them out,” Sumners said. “If I can’t, I point them to the right direction of where they can get help and follow-up to make sure they’ve gotten the help they need.”
Despite these concerns, the neighbors at Wind River Estates are quick to endorse the community-building benefits that social media can provide other neighborhoods.
“The bigger neighborhoods should especially [use it] because you wouldn’t know what’s going on with everyone else in the neighborhood,” Mueller said. “It keeps everyone up to date on the neighborhood as a whole, like when anything major or minor happens, you’ll know about it.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one story in an ongoing series spotlighting different neighborhoods in Denton. The stories by journalism students are part of an ongoing partnership between the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas and the Denton Record-Chronicle.