Islanders Are Talking — about Beauty, Addiction, and Lost Goats, on Facebook

Even on an island that’s just nine miles wide and 26 miles long at its furthest points, social media can play a vital role in connecting people. So when four Vineyard residents created Facebook pages and began posting photographs and thoughts on topics ranging from simple sunsets to coming back from the brink of self-destruction, their neighbors — both real and virtual — took notice.

Lori Robinson Fisher, Michael Blanchard, and Yann Meersseman (along with partner Moira Fitzgerald) have all reached far beyond the Island’s 96 square miles to build a combined total of more than 87,000 followers on Facebook. And in the process, they’ve developed communities surrounding the place, the people, and the priorities that are most important to them.

Confronting Addiction Through Images and Empathy

Eight years ago, Mr. Blanchard stood at a precipice. He was a successful executive who had just become the chief operating officer at a healthcare corporation in Portland, Maine. But the married father of two was an alcoholic whose drinking and depression soon resulted in stints at a psychiatric hospital, in jail, and at several rehab facilities before he was able to get sober. He kept his job but lost his marriage, in a journey that has led him to an entirely new path.

Today, in addition to his duties in Maine, he presides over a Facebook page with nearly 50,000 followers in 40 countries. Michael Blanchard Inspirational Photography features the scenic images he shoots each weekend as he combs the Vineyard for iconic settings. Through his lens and the creativity of online photo editing, he says, he has remained sober for nearly eight years.

“I learned about using imagery in healing,” the part-time Edgartown resident explains. “My daughter encouraged me to post my photos on Facebook, and soon I began attaching my story to the posts, and it took off.”

In fact, by selling his photographs, book, calendar, and notecards, Mr. Blanchard has donated upwards of $15,000 to support Martha’s Vineyard Community Services’ New Paths outpatient addiction program. This year, he’s earmarked the profits for Rising Tide Therapeutic Equestrian Program of West Tisbury, a nonprofit that helps children and adults with disabilities improve their quality of life through interaction with horses.

Just one class shy of a master’s degree in psychology, Mr. Blanchard plans to become a licensed addiction counselor, and eventually relocate to the Vineyard full-time. In the meantime, he has opened his heart and harrowing history on Facebook. In response, he gets hundreds of comments from those suffering from addiction, and their families and friends.

“Photography isn’t enough,” he observes. “I want to do good with it. It makes me feel great to help people.”

Islanders Talk — About Almost Everything

Ms. Fisher, a lifelong Vineyard resident, retired nursing assistant, and hospital unit coordinator, never considered herself to be particularly adept at technology. But when Facebook came along, she and a few friends, both on- and off-Island, started using it to connect.

“Then people asked to invite new people, and eventually we got to 100,” she explains. “We decided to open it up to people who could verify their connection to the Island.”

Five years later, Islanders Talk has become a forum for more than 9,000 members, all of whom have been vetted by Ms. Fisher to ensure eligibility. And while posts can run the gamut from the horrors of local spiders to the anguish of missing pets, the Facebook page strives to be the civil, informative, and interactive go-to page for all things Vineyard. Under Ms. Fisher’s genial but firm hand, Islanders can talk, but they can’t misbehave.

Bad parking, the affordable housing shortage, traffic jams, cable issues, drug addiction, the Edgartown Post Office, pets available for adoption, and restaurant reviews are just a few of the many topics discussed, debated, and celebrated. Islanders Talk has also assisted police in arresting suspects and locating stolen goods, and launched a nonprofit Benevolent Fund that has raised more than $15,000 to help Vineyard residents in need.

The diligent Ms. Fisher hasn’t taken a single day off since the inception of Islanders Talk. “The page is like a big family,” she says. “Sometimes it feels fascinating, like a bad accident. But ask for anything at all, and people will help.”

Capturing the Beauty of the Vineyard Every Day

Each day before the sun comes up, Mr. Meersseman, a former software engineer, drives around the Island delivering national newspapers to retailers. Along the way he shoots up to 500 images that reflect the Island’s unique beauty. During the summer months, his partner Ms. Fitzgerald, an architect, splits the route with him and contributes her own breathtaking images to their cause, Vineyard Colors, a Facebook page that offers a photographic glimpse of a magical moment every day to fans, both local and around the world.

The Oak Bluffs residents found themselves unemployed during the recession of 2009, and picked up the newspaper delivery route to help pay the bills. As they dropped off the bundles, the couple began snapping pictures with their pocket cameras.

Ms. Fitzgerald returned to her work when the economy improved, but Mr. Meerssemann decided he preferred his new occupation. When friends and former colleagues questioned his sanity, he and Ms. Fitzgerald began to email the images to them. The couple’s email list grew to 3,000, and, four years ago, they created a Facebook page to take their chronicle of Vineyard beauty public.

They maintain a website along with sending daily emails and posting on Facebook. Together, they’ve created a thriving small business selling photographs, cards, and calendars — and traded up to sophisticated cameras with, as Mr. Meersseman puts it, “lots of gear.”

He attributes their popularity on Facebook to regular daily posts and to the sense of immediacy the newly shot photographs create. “People tell us the photos take their blood pressure down.”

He speaks warmly about his attachment to the Island and the feedback he gets on Facebook. “Some people say, ‘I’ve lived here for 30 years and have no idea where you got that shot.’”