City Ugly?

Facebook group puts spotlight on public behaviour, online discourse

The now notorious Facebook group, ‘People Of Winnipeg’ is stirring gales of controversy over photos of Winnipeggers taken on city streets. Many derogatory and racist comments are included on the Facebook page, attached to images of disabled and homeless residents.

The public outcry has been resounding as residents logged on to find an unflattering view of their own city.

“I checked out the page thinking it was going to be similar to the ‘Humans of New York’ website,” says Winnipeg resident Marianne Champagne, 26.  “It made me feel dirty and ashamed that people would exploit homelessness, addiction, and simply being different to degrade others and get a laugh at their expense.”

The page, created in May 2013, bares the lighthearted description, “Weirdos of Winnipeg” and a disclaimer that reads: “Just so we are all clear, we are not all a bunch of ass holes that are here to put people down or make our city look bad. This group is about posting pictures of people who are out in public doing crazy things that may seem very unrealistic but are very real.”

The group has rapidly grown in membership, jumping from 600 members on Sept. 1 to over 23,000 at publishing time, with hundreds of new posts appearing daily. 

Seantel Anaïs, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Winnipeg is dismayed by the group’s endurance.

“It’s incredibly sad. This is not passive interest. These are people who are actually taking the time to join the page,” Anaïs says of the ever-expanding membership. “The posts are classist, racist, sexist and incredibly disappointing.”

Creator of the page, Shaun Winkler, graduate of River East Collegiate and member of other Facebook groups Hunting Passion and WXF Wrestling, did not respond to The Uniter’s request for an interview. 

The other three administrators of the page also declined interview requests, with one threatening to contact a lawyer if their name was used. 

Anaïs hopes that if the page remains online Winnipeg youth will think before joining.

“This digital record of our poor behavior lives on,” Anaïs advises. “People posting to this site should be prepared to suffer the consequences. There are a lot of people who are attaching their own name to posts that are really disheartening. For young people, it’s certainly worth thinking about.”

But group members still feels the page could prove beneficial.

“Not showing the things we see around Winnipeg is equivalent to walking around the city with our eyes closed,” Jilli’anna Nienhuis, a member of the group, says in a Sept. 9 ‘People Of Winnipeg’ post.

Anaïs believes claims of social advocacy are utterly false.

“There is a difference between exposing problems so that they can be ameliorated and exposing problems so they can be made the object of ridicule, and this page clearly comes out doing the latter,” Anaïs says.

“What this page is to me is a total and utter failure of human generosity.”

On a positive tip, note the capitalization of People Of Winnipeg. An alternate Facebook page, People of Winnipeg, exists highlighting the positive in our city.

Published in Volume 69, Number 3 of The Uniter (September 17, 2014)

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