The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
When I was growing up, I knew the names of all my neighbors.
There was Dorothy across the back fence, the Niswongers next door, and Ricky Lopez’s family across the street, three doors down. (No relation to the band member from Menudo, unfortunately for little Ricky).
We had many other neighbors, whose faces I can still see while no longer recalling their names, and while our family didn’t necessarily like all of them — and I’m sure not all liked us — everyone was neighborly. For us that term meant saying hello when you saw each other, loaning a tool out every so often, or even by having an awkward but polite discussion about a dog barking all night.
Personally knowing your neighbors is a lost art, having faded with the advent of automatic garage door openers and the replacement of front porches with backyard patios. Isolation is now the status quo, with some polls showing people going decades without ever knowing the names of the people with whom they share a fence.
This isn’t the best situation, as connection with others is a basic, human psychological need.
Enter Nextdoor: an online social network advertised as a way to create private online communities in limited geographic areas to “facilitate communication among neighbors and build stronger neighborhoods.”
Sounds like a great idea, right? Sort of like Facebook was supposed to bring the world together in friendship, and Twitter was supposed to be a real-time diary of what Ashton Kutcher did all day interspersed with breaking news from journalists. We all know how that’s worked out.
Before you paint me archaic, let me say that I understand and use social media, and believe it can be a force for good. I doubt the Arab Spring could have spread as rapidly as it did without Twitter, and everyone knows of people who’ve found long lost relatives via Facebook. Likewise, sites like Nextdoor can be a godsend to the homebound, the desperately shy and people seeking a decent plumber.
Lately, though, it seems as if Nextdoor has devolved into a place for trading gossip, innuendo and critique rather than listing garage sales and cookie recipes. I’d hoped it was just my local site, but a quick internet search revealed various articles about Nextdoor bullying, with writers across the nation wondering if the site has become just one more space for snark, suspicion and shaming.
To be clear, a full three-quarters of the posts on my local site are just dandy, as I assume most of the 358 members of my “neighborhood” are. But the remainder of the posts appear to be from members who thrive on raising a ruckus, fomenting fear and dabbling in humiliation-based behavior modification. You can just see them peeking out their blinds before running to their computer:
“I just saw two strange men walking down the street. Couldn’t get a photo, but they don’t look like they belong.”
“Two teens were rolling grapefruits down a hill and into traffic. Nothing but trouble.”
“There’s a hive of bees at (address here) and the owner’s ignoring it. Someone should call the cops!”
While someone usually jumps onto these threads to inject calm, it seems that once an angry or fearful post appears, hate pheromones are released, drawing similar hysteria in the “reply” boxes.
Yes, there are bad people in the world, and we want to keep an eye out. But the FBI reports property crime has decreased by 50% between 1993 and 2017, and crime overall has been on a steady decline for years. Yes, teens sometimes do stupid things, and having a face-to-face conversation might result in a teachable moment. Yes, bees make hives under eaves and it can be dangerous, but maybe we should walk down the street and offer help to our neighbor instead of calling her out on social media.
My parents didn’t need a social media network to connect with their neighbors in the ’60s and ’70s because, you know, they actually knew their neighbors. Maybe we should consider that approach once again. So, bake up a batch of brownies, go ring that doorbell and introduce yourself. I guarantee it will be more fun – and neighborly – than any online social network.