If you want to understand how group dynamics work online, look no further than Numtot.
The acronym stands for New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens. It’s a Facebook group with more than 100,000 members and, in little more than a year, it has become a hub for 20-somethings interested in urban planning, civic issues, infrastructure and memes that play on those topics. (The “teens” in the group’s name is somewhat misleading.)
The members of the group, called Numtots, or “tots” for short, debate Nimbyism (Not in My Back Yard), Yimbyism (Yes in My Back Yard) and Bimbyism (in this case, Brutalism in My Back Yard), post pictures of lomgbois (train cars) and discuss transit infrastructure of various world cities.
Though many of the posts that proliferate each day are memes, others are earnest, as tots seek one another’s expertise on city planning and architecture or post pictures of street signs in cities around the world.
Numtot was formed in early 2017 when Juliet Eldred, then a senior at the University of Chicago, and a friend, Emily Orenstein, began to trade memes related to urbanism. The group grew slowly, with surges in membership after coverage in CityLab, BuzzFeed and other outlets.
As membership has swelled, user behavior has shifted. Ms. Eldred, 24, said that there were not any rules until the group hit about 1,000 members. Last month, after a profile in The Guardian, she updated a longstanding rules post. (Rule No. 5 indicates, in part, “We will not ban you outright for being a capitalist, but don’t expect us to defend you either.”)
The tots’ political orientation has become an increasing focus, as rival groups began to bait one another, quarrel and question one another’s political credentials.
“The communists complain that the group is too neoliberal, and the market urbanists complain that the group is too communist,” Ms. Eldred said. “A lot of people will rag on the mods for being centrists. And most of us are socialists.”
Numtot’s microcommunities have created about 100 splinter groups, which define themselves in relation to — and sometimes in opposition to — the parent group. They include:
Yimby Memes for Developer Shill Teens
Social Urbanist Memes for Anarchist Communist Teens
Amchad Memes for American Rail Apologist Teens
Tyler Walter, 25, created that last group as a subgroup for a certain kind of meme, which classifies French trains as “virgins” and bulkier American trains as “Chads,” a widely used online nickname for macho dudes.
The first time he posted such a meme in Numtot, Mr. Walter said, it “pissed so many people off. It pissed off Europeans.”
“I like to poke the beehive a lot,” he said.
But Mr. Walter, who lives in Richmond, Va., has also created another spinoff group, one of close to 50 local Numtot spinoffs whose members often meet up in real life. He even went on a date with one of the members of the group.
The moderators of Numtot progeny can have difficult relationships with the parent group. For example, the description of the group Queer Urbanism Memes and Other Things for Lonely and Forgotten Teens insists that it is not affiliated with Numtot.
“Please keep any drama in Numtot out of this group so that we can keep it as safe and inclusive as possible!” the group’s description says.
Ms. Eldred and Mr. Walter both rolled their eyes at the stated lack of affiliation, and Will Tamura, one of the group’s administrators, acknowledged that the group had spun off from Numtot. But he said that it had been created so that its members could avoid the infighting that fills the original group.
The niche group that other, left-leaning tots complained about most bitterly was the dreaded market urbanists, libertarian-leaning members who argue for market-based solutions to urban issues. John O’Shea, an early member of the group from Lexington, Ky., and a leftist, said that he has trouble communicating productively with the “market urbanists.” (He made his own spinoff group mocking them.)
“The way I view it, housing crises are caused by the market,” Mr. O’Shea said. “So believing that the market will solve housing crises is disingenuous. I believe they believe what they’re saying. I don’t think they’re necessarily arguing in bad faith. But I find the position itself disingenuous.”
Scott Beyer, a journalist who founded The Market Urbanism Report, is a member of Numtot as of a couple of months ago. He enjoys the group — “The memes are great and a lot of them I agree with” — but is reluctant to post.
“If I start commenting, I’m scared that they’re going to block me,” he said. “I’ve left a couple, throwing a free market idea in here and there and they got a lot of laugh reacts. My reaction is, the Numtots think I’m stupid for saying this.”
But Ms. Eldred is too concerned with monitoring sudden eruptions of racism to worry too much about market urbanism. She said that the scale of the group has made it so that things “can spiral very quickly.”
“All it takes is one person being like, ‘Oh not all police are bad,’ and it can get very bad,” she said.
Zizi Papacharissi, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois-Chicago who specializes in behavior in social networks, said that the group’s changes over time mimicked the history of other, more well-known platforms.
“When everything was smaller, we all loved it more,” she said. Though she could not define an absolute threshold, she said that once a group gets beyond, 1,000, 2,000 or even 5,000 members, “things start getting chaotic.”
Still, Dr. Papacharissi was excited by Numtot, which she said hewed more closely to the civic engagement that the early internet was supposed to bring about. She said that the splinter groups, particularly the ones for local communities, which often meet up off-line, exemplified a kind of self-correcting instinct.
“The best way to react to that growth is not to pack up and leave but create these microgroups within the larger organization that continue to communicate,” she said. “The ideal way to reclaim communication and to retain the bonds between those microfactions are memes.”
Ms. Eldred agreed that the group remains largely positive, though she imagines archiving it forever on a frequent basis.
“We never really wanted to have the responsibility of dealing with what I call my 100,000 large adult children,” she said. “At the same time I’m sort of weirdly proud of it. People are learning from each other, and a lot of people care about these things. Transportation and urban planning is thought of as a niche or wonky kind of thing, when it really does affect everybody. This group has been sort of good at lowering the bar to entry.”