Gene Galin has created a virtual democracy unlike any other in the Triangle. With 45,000 residents spread thinly across 707 mostly rural square miles, Chatham's actual communities are few and far between. But Galin has founded, nurtured and expanded a cyberspace place called the Chatham Chatlist, where residents find both a voice and access to their neighbors' ears.
Need some firewood? Someone on the chatlist knows who's selling some. Want to protest the proposal to close the Bynum Post Office? Find some comrades to come along. Have some dirt on a county commissioner candidate? You'll find empathy and antipathy. Need donations for the Pittsboro Playground? Ask. Tell. Argue. It's messy, it's amusing, it's participatory democracy in a whole new format.
"It's a snapshot of the history of the county over the last five years," says Galin, a history major in college who envisions historians one day poring over the archives.
The chatlist, a daily e-mail digest that now has 900 subscribers, began in 1997. It grew out of citizen interest in Galin's first online efforts in 1993, when he set up one Web page and filled it with links to Web sites he thought would interest his fellow Chatham residents. Today, in addition to spawning the chatlist, that one page has grown into dozens, with an online bulletin board, pages of photos from local high school football games, candidate questionnaires each election cycle, and other topics of local interest.
In addition to the daily e-mail digest that just celebrated its 1,387th edition, Galin also maintains other facets of the virtual community he created. The Chatham Online Bulletin Board averages nearly 10,000 visits a week, up from 25 when it debuted. There, dozens of conversation "threads" about a variety of local and national issues churn at any given time. Galin (pronounced like four quarts) also edits the print and internet editions of The Chatham Journal, a monthly newspaper whose home page serves as the springboard for all his community efforts (
"I look at it like neighbors talking across the fence, but instead of the fence being in your yard, it's all the way across Chatham County," says Galin, who compiles and distributes the chatlist in his free time, when he's not working his day job as a BellSouth salesman or parenting his three kids.
The chatlist works like this: You subscribe and post messages via e-mail, and then each day, all the postings arrive in your inbox as one long e-mail "digest" with a table of contents. You can post replies to the whole list for the next day's digest, or e-mail other contributors "off-list" one-on-one.
Most of the subscribers are Chatham residents. But they also include Chatham natives who've moved away, gone off to college, or serve in the military overseas, Galin says. Local and statewide elected officials often assign a staff person to keep an eye on what their constituents are chatting about, and local newspaper reporters monitor the list for story tips. Of the 900 subscribers, Galin estimates about 10 percent actually post, with the other 90 percent labeled "lurkers"--people who read regularly but don't jump in.
"I wouldn't call them 'regular' folks, because they tend to be self-selecting--they all have computers and choose to be involved in local issues," says Galin. "But it is a good cross-section of the community."
The list has its own internal debates, dynamics and regulars. Currently, chatters are sparring about whether they should be required to use their real names, rather than e-mail "handles."
Sometimes, the list carries a call-and-response pattern that's as predictable as a preacher. Residents who write in about agricultural issues--such as a recent question about producing crispier pickles--are sure to hear something useful from the folks at the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service 24 hours later.
Each week, Saturday's digests are reserved for a virtual yard sale, and once a year, just before the holiday shopping season, Galin dedicates space on the list for local business owners to introduce themselves and their companies.
"I think we need to help each other any way we can," says Galin, who garnered a lot of moral support--and leads--when he told the chatlist earlier this year he was looking for a job.
The chatlist's most vibrant conversations address broad community issues, with heavy emphasis on countywide politics. This fall, the daily e-mails birthed some of the most passionate--and vitriolic--debate by supporters of Gary Phillips and Bunkey Morgan, the county commissioner candidates in the hotly contested District 4 primary.
Chatters run the gamut geographically and politically.
"People reading the chatlist are very active community people and very aware of the cultural and political climate--it's an opinionated place," says Regina Bridgman, the executive director of the Chatham County Arts Council. "Gene does an excellent job of moderating in a very fair way."
Galin is no stranger to county politics, having served on several citizen advisory committees and run unsuccessfully for the school board twice. He's a native New Yorker, a fact he hems and haws before revealing, so strong is the outsider stigma in the county he's called home for 17 years. He lives in northern Chatham off Jones Ferry Road, but isn't one of those "north Chatham progressives" who caught so much grief from Siler City conservatives on the chatlist this fall. In fact, Galin is a registered Republican who was just a little mystified to be nominated for a Citizens Award from the paper one of his conservative chatters calls, alternately, "The Pravda Weekly" and "The Independent Weakly."
But Galin generally keeps his personal politics out of the daily digest, and most of the time limits his own participation to moderating with what he calls "a light hand." Recently, that has meant several reminders at the top of the list to "play nice" in the wake of the very contentious fall elections, as well as sending a few private e-mails to people who have attempted to post personal attacks.
The online bulletin board he created, with its wider array of state and national politics, real estate promotion and other commerce, reveals more of Galin's personal political leanings. But among the chatlist participants, Galin gets kudos from all sides for cultivating the democratic process in Chatham County.
"I feel that I have a voice in Chatham politics," says Judy Hogan, a Moncure resident whose posts about nuclear dangers from the nearby Shearon Harris plant draw both support and criticism from the list. "A few people on the list jump on me, but it seems worth the trouble to be able to speak out and be listened to on issues which concern me."
Chatham is not the only Triangle community with an e-mail list or a web page. There are virtual communities sprinkled throughout Durham, Orange and Wake--and even a couple of others in Chatham--that are dedicated to particular neighborhoods or issues. But Galin's chatlist seems to be the only countywide forum that encompasses all topics across an entire county, and some say it's an invaluable and unique resource.
"The chatlist is a real-time venue for residents of Chatham County to stay abreast of current issues and events," says Bridgman, whose regular posts about the arts council engender enthusiastic responses to requests for volunteers and event notices.
Keeping up the list and bulletin boards is a relatively simple task, says Galin, who does it all from his home computer with $150 worth of software he bought with help from a few chatters. He has bartered for Web space for the Web pages, and sells banner ads to help defray costs. The e-mail digest is text-only, uncomplicated by graphics or attachments that would take more time and cost more money. He sets it up to be as automated as possible, and on an average day, he says it takes just a few minutes to cull through the posts, compile and distribute them. When he talks about the compliments he hears around town, taking pictures at a Northwood High School football game or getting a haircut at the barbershop in Bynum, he shrugs matter-of-factly.
"A lot of folks say I could've, I should've, I would've," Galin says, "but they don't, and I did."