by Max Brett

On Oct. 20, police ticketed men playing chess in Emerson Playground, a section of Inwood Hill Park that prohibits adults “except in the company of children.”

Early in the morning of Nov. 17, working on leads from community sources, DNAinfo.com’s Carla Zanoni broke the news: seven “mild-mannered” men were being issued summonses for “playing their favorite board game.”

There are at least two ways of telling the story of what happened next: the relatively simple matter of describing what happened in, for lack of a better term, the offline world and the much more complicated affair of dissecting the tumultuous reaction in cyberspace.

In the offline world, the ticketed men are expected to appear in court next month. The police have defended their actions. The Parks Department has since installed picnic benches near the W. 207th Street entrance to Inwood Hill Park so adults have a place to congregate outside the playground.

In cyberspace, however, the hyperlocal news item went viral, meaning online blogs and media sources picked it up and spread the word – with varying degrees of accuracy – about what became known as the “Inwood Hill 7.”

Reaction to the article on DNAinfo’s Web site was swift, and with some exceptions, generally perturbed or furious, and authored by anonymous readers.

To some, it felt like a case of selective enforcement of a nonsensical law by the officers on the scene and an odd piece of police work in an area with more pressing crimes. Others felt that adults without children have no business congregating in playgrounds meant for kids and families.

There were 22 responses posted in the comment section of Zanoni’s article on the first day. As of press time, 400 people have recommended her story using a Facebook application; she says this is atypical. United Press International, New York Magazine, msnbc.com, Gothamist, and many others essentially re-reported DNAinfo.com’s original article. The New York Post even ran an editorial cartoon.

Local mother Jackie Rodriguez-Jones says she first heard of the story from a DNAinfo automated daily e-mail blast she receives.

“My initial reaction was a frown,” she wrote in a Facebook message to this Manhattan Times freelancer. Then she monitored her News Feed and her friends’ profiles and saw that friends had seen the same news and were writing and commenting on it. She later watched a taped piece on WNBC’s noon broadcast about the incident.

Meanwhile, marketing manager Naomi Fink read her Twitter feed and saw “how a lot of my Inwood friends were incensed” about the ticketing of the chess players. Then she saw a Tweet to Zanoni’s original story, which she passed to The New York Times’ City Room blog, which posted a story on the subject.

That gave a huge boost to the story’s popularity and visibility.

“That’s the [power] of the re-Tweet,” said Zaida Grunes, a local mom who runs the Manhattan’s Peak blog, which monitors all things local in Inwood. She has been highly vocal on the subject of the summonses and ticketing of the men – she’s written three open letters and has Tweeted often on the subject. “You can easily get a story out to thousands of people within minutes” through Twitter, she said.

By all accounts, the speed at which news of the incident traveled was surprising.

“I could not believe how quickly this spread,” Rodriguez-Jones wrote. She and her son had played chess with the men and she felt they had been targeted. Facebook messages flew between Rodriguez-Jones and other parents as they decided to take their complaints to the open air. She organized a demonstration.

“I get upset when all we do as a society is Twitter or chat about what is bothering us but don’t do anything else to demonstrate love,” Rodriguez-Jones wrote.

On Nov. 20, the support for the seven men that had spread throughout the Internet manifested outside cyberspace for the first time: about 20 adults and children rallied on their behalf in Inwood Hill Park.

Zanoni, who covers Washington Heights and Inwood for DNAinfo, was “heartily surprised’ by the mainstream response to her first piece. She sees the reaction by the community – on message boards, blogs, listservs and social media – as invaluable to fact gathering.

“When something is published, I get immediate feedback,” she said. “The nuance, is there more to the story … I get that right away,” she said. “In terms of reporting in a general way, I monitor conversations going on in all my beats. I can see when something is becoming a trend.”

Is there a danger, though, that as an issue is tossed back and forth through social media that it gets blown out of proportion? Zanoni and Fink believe the benefit is far greater, that the discussion helps amplify community issues that the mainstream media might otherwise ignore.

Rodriguez-Jones agreed.

“I have learned to reach out to both Manhattan Times and DNAinfo so that more than one-quarter of the story is known. I believe that both have put out the story from many angles and I enjoy being a part of giving out another side of the story,” she wrote.