The North Runs on Facebook

At twenty, the social media giant might seem old school. For many of us up here, it’s still the place to be

A digital collage featuring a hand holding up a smartphone to photograph an Arctic. Dark blue rays and red hearts are shining out of the phone.
Loved an Image, 2023, digital collage

On an early morning last November, much of Whitehorse was shaken awake by a huge explosion. Once I’d made myself a coffee, I opened Facebook to talk to my neighbours about what we’d heard, what we’d seen and felt, and what might be going on.

A few months before that, when close to 30,000 residents of the Northwest Territories—almost 70 percent of the territory’s population—were evacuated under the threat of wildfires, many of them logged onto Facebook to share updates about their progress on the long drive south. They shared intel about where to get gas and asked around about places to stay—did anyone in Edmonton have room for a family of three and a couple of cats?

As Facebook turns twenty this month, its anniversary isn’t something I’m inclined to celebrate. But I can grudgingly admit that I’m grateful for the role it plays in my community and across the North.

Northerners don’t click over to Facebook only when there’s a crisis. For many of us, it’s the first stop for finding lost pets, tickets to a sold-out show, used cars for sale, the latest trail conditions for hikers, runners, and bikers, aurora forecasts—and hey, did anyone else just see that weird meteor type thing streak across the sky?

Facebook’s downsides are legion. Scrolling down our feeds offers us a curated view of our friends’ lives, and that can warp our perceptions of our own day-to-day. The comments that accrue below posted news articles—that is, back when Canadians were still allowed to post news articles to Facebook—can be incredibly cruel. Disinformation, about everything from vaccines to the war in Ukraine to whether or not Taylor Swift is a CIA plant, spreads as quickly as your problematic uncle can click “Share.”

But in the North, at least, it’s more than just a place to scroll until the eye strain and regret kick in. It’s a hub of communication for our small and far-flung communities: a town square, a message board, a giant group chat, a way to plan events or put out a call for help. This winter, I’ve used Facebook to keep track of which Whitehorse-area trails have had their snow groomed for fat biking, and to share news about weather-induced highway closures and power supply slowdowns. (Meta’s news ban in Canada hasn’t seemed to hamper most Northerners’ Facebook use; when we want to talk about the news, we just post screenshots and let others know where to check out the story on its original site.) Outside the “big cities” of Whitehorse and Yellowknife, things get even more granular: in a Facebook discussion group for a small community, you’ll see people posting bingo times, requests for anyone who’s making a trek into “town” to pick up some medicine at the vet’s on their behalf, or even something as simple as “If anyone sees my mom today, tell her to call me.”

Facebook groups can also bring together like-minded folks from across many communities. In the Arctic Kitchen, a group facilitated by CBC North, 49,500 members share their recipes for dishes like moose stew, dried char, and bannock tacos, and each post elicits a heartwarming (and stomach-grumbling) comment thread full of other users’ fond meal memories. Other popular groups are a bit less wholesome: Shit Parkers of Yukon allows Yukoners to anonymously post photos of the most egregious parking jobs they see on the streets—and, er, sometimes the sidewalks. Its 5,000-plus members never run out of material.

I don’t know if Facebook’s enduring relevance in the North is a result of our relative isolation from the fast-changing trends down south or because it’s always loaded better on slow, janky internet than many other social sites. And I’ve also wondered whether Facebook’s role here is really all that unique to Northern communities or if it just feels that way. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I have marshalled a couple of relevant anecdotes.

First, my editor on this essay, Samia Madwar, lived in Yellowknife for several years in the mid-2010s. She rarely logs onto Facebook anymore, but when she does, she tells me, her feed is still mostly filled with Yellowknifers talking amongst themselves. Even though she left the North nearly a decade ago, her life in Toronto isn’t really reflected in her feed at all.

Second, a friend of a friend was recently starting a new business in Whitehorse and hired a Vancouver-based PR firm to help. Our mutual friend told me the firm advised that he definitely needed a website and an Instagram account but he shouldn’t bother making a Facebook page for his business—Facebook, they said, was over. But many small Northern businesses only have Facebook pages. No websites, no Instagram stories, no clever TikToks.

I’m sure you can achieve a similar town-square effect in a small community down south or in a given neighbourhood within a larger city. But even if you know your neighbours in Vancouver or Toronto, your worlds don’t probably overlap to the same extent. Your job is in one part of the city, your kids’ daycare in another, and your friends are scattered across a wide area. Your Facebook experience, too, would be diluted, spread thinner.

I’m pretty skeptical about social media these days. I’m trying to spend less time on the internet and cut down on my screen time by reading more books and magazines in hard copy. (I even got some new DVDs recently.) Still, I value the hyperlocal conversations that Facebook enables. Here in Whitehorse, we haven’t yet heard an official explanation for the house explosion that killed one neighbour and left the homeowner in hospital. When the results of the investigation are made public, I know which app I’ll be swiping open.

With thanks to the Gordon Foundation for supporting the work of writers from Canada’s North.

Eva Holland
Eva Holland (@evaholland) is a freelance writer based in Whitehorse, Yukon. She is a contributing writer for The Walrus, a correspondent for Outside magazine, and the author of Nerve: A Personal Journey through the Science of Fear.
Chantal Jung
Chantal Jung (she/they) is a Nunatsiavut Inuk and self-taught multimedia artist and writer with a focus on collage art, zines, video, and film. Chantal is originally from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador (Nunatsiavut), and is currently residing as a guest on Ramaytush Ohlone land (San Francisco, California).