One lost dog and 80,000 Facebook shares: when hyperlocal media goes viral

March 16th, 2015 by Jerome Turner in Research | no comments

In our work exploring hyperlocal media, we’ve identified that hyperlocal websites and platforms like Facebook and Twitter are often used by people who have lost their pets, or found stray animals they’d like to reunite with their owners. The everyday and local nature of this media clearly encourages this kind of participation, even if the editors don’t build their spaces for those purposes. And the truth is that when a lot of people see these posts, the pets often are reunited. Until a few weeks ago, I thought that several hundred shares on Facebook, or even a few on Twitter was impressive, like this:

But then something caught me eye that almost caused me to write this with a clickbait title.

‘This woman found a dog and posted its picture. You’ll never believe what happened next.”

Or, “This story of a lost dog will restore your faith in humanity.” You get the idea.

The story caught my eye on my own personal Facebook timeline. Two people I knew had shared the same story, people who had lived in a town I once lived in (I’m keeping this as anonymous as possible, for reasons that will become clear). A dog had been found, and the finder (I’m going to call her Julie) was trying to reunite it with its owner, nothing I hadn’t seen dozens of times before.

But this one was a little different…

1. It had been shared 71,173 times.

2. It wasn’t shared on a hyperlocal Facebook page as far as I could tell, but just on someone’s personal timeline.

I know the town where this took place. It has the usual social media you might expect, a Facebook page for the local newspaper, a local Facebook Group, largely populated by businesses rather than news stories. Neither have huge followings. And significantly, there is no hyperlocal media organisation for the town, run by citizens or otherwise. So is this what happens when there isn’t a hyperlocal page to post a story like this? It gets posted on an individual’s page and because residents aren’t used to seeing lost dogs online very much, when they do see one, it seems novel and so they all share it.

A week or so later I wanted to follow it up, but I couldn’t find the Facebook post, although was able to find that other people had been recreating the post from the text. Through this I was able to track to story back to its origin, and the lady who had first posted it. I Messaged her through Facebook, it eventually went to her ‘Other’ message box, and given all the attention she’d been receiving it was hardly surprising she took a while to get back. But when she did, I asked her about the story.

My husband is a keen angler who for the first time in ages needed to rest his mind and went to a lovely private lake to unwind. As he was unloading the car, he saw a dog under a tree, in what looked to be a self dug hole. He found the dog in a terrible state, so much so that he believed it was dead or dying. He wrapped it up in his jackets and called me, we decided that we couldn’t leave it to die on its own so brought it home and started calling people, from rescue centres to dog trainers.

We came across an organisation called Dog Lost, through a comment on the post that we made on Facebook. A lady suggested the dog to be one shown on the [Dog Lost] Facebook page. We spoke with one of the co-ordinators and she remained on the phone for us whilst we tried to A. find possible owners, B. follow up on suggestions and C. try and source veterinary treatment.

Through this, Julie found the dog that matched the description, and the owners.

They were not Facebook users so it came as a shock to them to receive a call regarding their dog as he had been missing presumed stolen for a year – they’d given up hope of finding him. They were shocked and unsure that it could possibly be their dog after all this time so we called the dog warden and arranged for them to come and collect the dog.

At this point Julie left it to the warden to organise the happy reunion. The owners were able to prove it was their dog  and all ended well. There are two interesting points to take from this story. First, that it ended well, that social media can do some pretty incredible things sometimes.

When an innocent Facebook post becomes ‘a thing’
Secondly, these stories rely on those citizens that act, and can then mobilise everyday media to these ends. Because whilst Dog Lost and wardens were doing their thing, so was Julie, back on Facebook.

Throughout the time we spent trying to source help we were inundated with messages, primarily through Facebook but also on family members’ Facebooks and on our mobile phones, with the furthest message being received from USA. It went very big very quick! We had approximately 600 messages just on my profile, my husband got over 100. Even my mother-in-law received messages as well as friends of mine so it did feel over whelming ! It took us a week to work through all of the messages. We also had phone calls and text messages, it was exhausting!

Perhaps, most worryingly, the situations that can then arise put the citizen in a situation of power, but also threat. As the story unfolds they are entered into a public sphere of what ended in 80,000 Facebook shares. Whether mistakenly or not, certain demands were made by readers.

There were many claims of ownership, I would say over 50. The travelling community were very pushy, offering rewards initially but turning nasty when we refused to converse. So no, we didn’t feel in control of the situation – at times it was stressful.

I know this is a story I’ll come to again and again, when I’m thinking of the disparate weaving of local media that extends beyond ‘official’ organisations like hyperlocal media, Facebay sites, or local history Facebook Groups. It’s a great illustration of the positions we sometimes put ourselves in without realising, when we post somewhere that feels quite personalised and private like Facebook, but actually has the potential to project us into a very, very public position. But then the payoff can be worth it, especially when it means reuniting a worn out dog with his owner one year later.


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