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Virtual smackdowns

Cross-border rivalries spill onto the Internet, where even residents have fun tweaking hometowns

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 entry in the online Urban Dictionary twits Needham as a town so boring that 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 teams, or a prized (or despised) landmark - haven’t really changed so much.

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

And online or in the real world, “Meffa’’ still can’t get any respect. (Though some bloggers insist Medford is really “MedFID.’’)

Newton is “Snewton’’ or “Shrink City,’’ based on the breathtaking ratios of licensed psychiatrists and psychologists living there (and not just that Comedy Central hero, “Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist,’’ whose real-life creator, Jonathan Katz, actually lives in Newton.)

The creator of www.urbandictionary.com, 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 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 particular living person, he said.

Bob Brown, creator of the often tongue-in-cheek Swellesley Report website about all things Wellesley, writes on his blog that local denizens may not love its self-mocking name, but none have really complained. There is even a small market for Swellesley Report T-shirts (going for $21 at www.theswellesleyreport.com).

Peckham regards the material on the Urban Dictionary site - much of it submitted by anonymous posters - as the “anti-Wikipedia,’’ referring to the strait-laced, accuracy-minded collaborative online encyclopedia. “There is nothing factual,’’ Peckham said of Urban’s entries. “It’s very much about how one person felt when they wrote their definition.’’

Which is perhaps how one Urban Dictionary poster felt when they described Hingham as “dominated by soccer moms wearing pink, yellow and lime green,’’ referring to the South Shore town’s fame as the corporate headquarters of an upscale women’s clothier, Talbots Inc.

Among communities north of Boston, on the other hand, Malden is dismissed with a single entry that defines it as “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 Malden during an early scene in his 2006 best-selling novel, “Cell.’’

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

Richie Ireton, a Revere native and newspaper publisher whose company operates five local websites, including Melrose Messages (www.melrosemessages.com), said the forum has been somewhat of a “shock’’ to the 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 chatboard, after Whispering Winthrop, garnering an average of 3,000 and 4,000 page views daily and hundreds of postings, Ireton said.

At first, the most avid Melrose Messages followers seemed to be older residents arguing politics and property taxes, but after a line of controversial discussion on teen drinking, the site began attracting younger participants, including some so aggrieved by the discussion among their elders that they unleashed a spam pornography attack on the message board.

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

Another online local community growing in popularity are so-called refugee sites, which gather people who grew up in a particular place or shared an experience.

On Facebook’s “Remember When? Growing up in Wellesley’’ group, described as a “place to unload your thoughts, memories, anecdotes about growing up in Wellesley,’’ comments are typically gentle and nostalgic about long-gone ice cream parlors.

But other towns are the recipients of sharper social criticism.

A Facebook group named simply “Scituate’’ defines itself as “all people from the little drunken town’’ and has nearly 450 members.

Another 378 people, most describing themselves as college students, have joined a similar Facebook group that calls itself “If it weren’t for Scituate, I wouldn’t know how to drink.’’

In neighboring Norwell, there appears to be little interest in the staid Facebook site offering general town information, but more than 100 users have joined a “Norwell needs a Wendy’s’’ Facebook group launched by a local high school student.

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

Her site, which launched in 2004, offered an “onramp’’ 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 comments by passionate residents, she said.

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

Discussion on her site rarely devolves into insults about the community, and attacks on particular people aren’t permitted, Williams said.

“People tend to be nicer when they expect to see each other again,’’ said Williams, who in 2007 created www.placeblogger.com, a website that tracks and charts more than 5,000 blogs about communities worldwide.

Online expression of community brings together people who were previously “invisible to each other,’’ or neighbors who simply didn’t have the opportunity to become close in real life, she said.

“They also let you in on the local jokes and let you see that a place you live is often very funny.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.