From population to land size, Wilton Manors is a very small city. But there is an outsized amount of love, concern, and passion for the island enclave.
It’s no secret that social media lets people amplify small concerns and have a voice in big issues usually left to government and corporate leaders. Wilton Manors residents and fans are no exception.
On Facebook alone, a quick search finds nearly a dozen pages dedicated to all things Wilton. And the focus of the pages is as diverse as the issues facing the city. You can find one focusing on nightlife, one filled with right-wing political views, then click on one that focuses on the inner workings and minutiae of city hall. The numbers of followers range from a few hundred to a few thousand. One thing they all have in common is that group members (many pages are public but some are private requiring admin approval) want to be a part of their community.
SEE THE NEED
Each one is inspired and driven by someone seeing a need to be addressed. One of the most popular pages, with nearly 8,000 members, is simply titled Wilton Manors. Geo Bustamante started the page before Facebook groups were really “a thing.”
“I started the page way back when Facebook groups weren’t as popular,” he told SFGN. “I thought that Wilton Manors needed a place where everyone could come together and share their activities and businesses.”
Mark Rivera is the admin for What’s Happening On the Drive. He and a friend started running a page focusing solely on the Shoppes of Wilton Manors, but says his vision expanded.
“I wanted to expand to everyone on what we all call The Drive. Yes, there were publications that did this as well, but the internet was a faster way to get the word out.”
While those pages look at what’s happening out and about, Wilton Community News Group keeps an eye on what’s afoot inside city hall. Kareem Awadalla is an international journalist, and tells SFGN he created the page out of a need for transparency after moving here in 2018.
“I applied to volunteer for 10 local city committees. I was rejected for all of them,” he says. “That’s when I said to myself ‘I am a journalist by trade, I should produce a news report about local issues.’”
CHANGE IS CONSTANT
Over time, the type of people who follow a page change. But the pages can adapt, or, even have spinoffs. Rivera believes the ever-changing population of the area keeps fresh ideas coming. “We have people that, of course, live here, but [also those] looking to move here, or just arrived and have been told about my group and come to us for a good source of info. We have members from Europe, the islands, and all parts of the United States.”
Despite being a news-only site, Awadalla says his members are very active. “Now they are sending me leads to stories they want me to cover. One story has led to many additional interviews and stories about issues important to the community.”
Of course, not all input is positive. Sometimes posters will try to hijack the conversation or the page’s mission. Bustamante says it happened to him. “A few years into managing this group, we actually got slammed with trolls. They trashed the group, bullied people, and caused a lot of people to leave.”
Rivera says admins must be vigilant. “What I strived [for] was to dedicate my time to really be that moderator ... To change the direction, or delete, or block any member that was not following the group rules.”
Politics are everywhere on social media, and these pages are no exception. Wilton Manors Issues and Concerns (Residents) has a picture of a Wilton Manors sign at the top, but posts consist mainly of right-wing memes that focus more on national issues than immediate concerns to Wilton or South Florida. As a response, a similarly named page was created: Wilton Manors Residents Issues and Concerns. There we found ads for local businesses, posts on upcoming events, and videos on news relating to South Florida’s LGBT community.
Awadalla strives to keep his page politically neutral. “I am very happy with how the Wilton Community News Group is shaping up to become a place for healthy political debate. I always end my reports with ‘what do you think?’”
Local politicians see these pages and use them to open a direct line of communication to constituents. Wilton Manors City Commissioner Chris Caputo is a prolific poster. He tells SFGN there are about 150 important citizens always giving input, but social media lets many more get involved. “What’s been amazing about Facebook groups ... has been connecting to the thousands of other residents who aren’t a part of that ‘inner circle’ of residents.”
PRIDE & PASSION
The outsized amount of attention paid to Wilton Manors isn’t just nice, the admins we spoke to say it’s necessary. “Unlike other small cities, a lot actually happens here,” Bustamante says. “That’s why having multiple groups is necessary to meet everyone’s likes and dislikes.”
Rivera agrees. “We really have a great group ... I get messages all the time thanking me for having the group, and keeping up with it, and also engaging the members to help each other. I’m really proud of what we have and everyone enjoys the group.”