THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Trash talk between communities goes online

By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / July 2, 2009
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Town rivalries haven’t faded away, they’ve just gone virtual.

“Swellesley!’’ teases one popular town news website about that affluent suburb west of Boston. An online Urban Dictionary entry twits its neighbor, Needham, as a town so boring a police blotter might read: “Baked goods mistaken for weapons.’’

And to the north, mild-mannered Melrose also gets the snarky Urban Dictionary treatment with that old call-and-response chestnut:

“I’m going up to Melrose.’’

“Why?’’

Now that every dot on a map is also an address in cyberspace, in a few clicks the world is at our doorstep. But old tensions and rivalries - mostly based on wealth, sports rivalries, or a prized (or despised) landmark - haven’t really changed so much.

The most obvious low blows still center on whether a town allegedly has too many rich residents - like Wellesley and Hingham - or too few - like Waltham and Malden.

And online or offline, “Meffa’’ still can’t get any respect. (Or anyone to pronounce its Rs, and some bloggers insist the city is called “MedFID.’’)

The creator of the Urban Dictionary, Aaron Peckham, watches the suburban mudslinging with some amusement.

The “slang dictionary’’ he founded a decade ago as a hobby during his freshman year at California Polytechnic State University now has approximately 4 million words and about 2,000 new submissions per day, with an army of volunteer editors sorting through it all.

Many of the most-read entries are about cities and towns around the world, written with emotions that run deep, Peckham said.

“People seem to love defining their hometowns and where they live and expressing something about how they experience that place,’’ he said.

In terms of town nicknames and insults, just about anything goes as long as it doesn’t libel a living person, he said.

Peckham regards the material included in the Urban Dictionary - much of it submitted by anonymous posters - as the “anti-Wikipedia,’’ referring to the strait-laced, collaborative online encyclopedia “in that there is nothing factual.’’

“It’s very much about how one person felt when they wrote their definition,’’ Peckham said.

Malden is dismissed in the Urban Dictionary with a single entry that defines it as a city “filled with little more than pizza places, hair, and nail salons.’’ But the community is building another, perhaps less savory reputation online among horror fans, after novelist Stephen King marched a gang of bloodthirsty zombies through town during an early scene in his 2006 bestselling novel “Cell.’’

Melrose, known as a bedroom community with rows of restored Victorians, has a message board where anonymous posters rip city officials and one another.

Richie Ireton, a Revere native and newspaper publisher who operates five community North Shore websites, including Melrose Messages (www.melrosemessages.com), said the forum has been somewhat of a shock to a generally quiet community.

“People here were finding out there is lots going on behind closed doors,’’ he said.

In less than a year, the Melrose board has become his second most-popular chat board, after Whispering Winthrop (www.whisperingwinthrop.com), garnering an average of 3,000 to 4,000 page views daily and hundreds of postings. At first, the most avid Melrose Messages followers seemed to be older residents arguing politics and property taxes, but after a controversial discussion on teen drinking, the site began attracting younger readers, including some so aggrieved by their elders’ discussion that they unleashed a spam pornography attack on the message board.

“People here are passionate about their community,’’ Ireton said.

The fascination over community image on the Internet has been blossoming for years, said Lisa Williams, founder of the popular community website h2otown (www.h2otown.info), about goings-on in Watertown.

Her site, which launched in 2004, offered an on-ramp into community life for relative newcomers to a town known for its established, old-timers culture, and a new place for the two groups to exchange ideas, she said.

Websites about communities are theatrical by nature, and filled with passionate residents, she said.

“All cities and towns are either a comedy or a tragedy,’’ she said. “I felt that I was living in a sort of comic opera with real estate taxes.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com