The Facebook revolution, writ small, hit East Hampton Town last week in advance of a deal to award beach food concessions to a couple of out-of-town vendors. In a sequence of events unprecedented for their speed and the number of people who became involved, word got out that the longtime-favorite Ditch Witch and Dune Dog snack trailers in Montauk were to go and newcomers were to take their place.
Montaukers took to the Internet with haste. From a start late in the evening on May 18, a Facebook group to save the Ditch Witch grew on from dozens to hundreds — and to over 1,300 by this week. Fans posted the e-mail addresses of town officials, and sent messages urging the town board to do something.
Online comments were overwhelmingly negative. Many repeated a common theme: Too much of Montauk was changing, and changing much too fast — taking its soul away, one woman wrote. “What the hell is up with East Hampton Town?” a man wondered. “Apparently nothing is sacred,” another wrote. Plans were hatched for a Sunday rally. Others suggested petitions or boycotts. In an insulting reference to the town supervisor, one person wrote, “Hey East Hampton: Disney called, and they want Goofy back.”
By midday last Thursday, the town board got the message, convening an emergency meeting and tossing out the system by which it had made ill-fated decisions on handing out concessions. It was, in brief, the speediest public outcry we have seen, as well as the fastest official capitulation ever.
The Ditch Witch and Dune Dog affair points to a new reality in government. Thanks to the power of the Internet, hundreds of people can mobilize in an instant, organizing and speaking out far more rapidly than governments can move to contain the damage of an idea gone wrong. People who might never attend a town board meeting or write a letter can make their voices heard with a few keystrokes. As chaotic as it may be, this is a good thing for democracy. East Hampton Town officials, at least this time, paid attention.