Neighbourhood social networks have been a great way to stay connected during the pandemic. But they’re all the perfect place to rant and complain. Peer over the virtual garden fence at your peril, says Julia Llewellyn Smith.
Remember those early days of lockdown back in March? Many of us, desperate for tips on where to track down toilet paper, or how to volunteer to help the elderly and vulnerable, rushed to sign up to the app Nextdoor.
Like a local newspaper, Neighbourhood Watch and Facebook group all rolled into one, the platform helps connect neighbours (it claims one UK household in seven is signed up) by instigating chats and advertising local services. Daily activity jumped by 80 per cent between February and March, according to Nick Lisher, boss of the British arm of Nextdoor. During the same time, the app saw a 382 per cent rise in UK-based members posting about the different ways to help each other.
During lockdown, my local Nextdoor group was packed with kind people offering to do others’ shopping, drive them to hospital and check in on those shielding. Yet its daily emails – a summary of local updates – were packed with posts from people threatening to dob in their neighbours for perceived or real infractions of quarantine rules.
‘WHAT ON EARTH does this woman think she is doing?’ read one post accompanying a photo of someone sunbathing on a patch of grass in a public space at the start of lockdown. ‘Doesn’t she care about the NHS?’ Within minutes, scores of replies had flashed up attacking the woman for selfishly defying stay-home orders (‘She could catch coronavirus from the grass!’ several stated.) Others defended her, saying she was lying nowhere near anyone else, probably had no garden and was just desperate to enjoy a spot of sunshine.
And this only got worse as the pandemic progressed. In April a photo appeared of an apparent street party: ‘How dare these people mingle? There is no distancing at all!’ exclaimed the sleuth who’s taken the shot. Flustered residents protested they’d thrown a distanced tea party in an attempt to cheer up their elders residents, and claimed the camera lens made everyone appear much closer than they actually were.
‘If anything, my Nextdoor group has become worse during lockdown,’ says a friend who lives in North London. ‘People have got bored – and more aggressive – over the past six months.’ Little wonder, then, that one British police force has reported neighbourhood disputes almost doubling during lockdown. ‘Restrictions have amplified residents’ frustrations, which they have taken out on each other,’ says Katy Bourne, Police and Crime Commissioner for Sussex Police.
Now, as more localised lockdowns are announced, this frustration is increasingly evident, with people complaining about others not wearing masks in the local shop; lack of hand gel at the chippy; queue jumping at Sainsbury’s, and threatening to report anyone seen breaking ‘the rule of six’. Only last week my group saw a man spluttering about parents at the school gates, ‘Putting lives at risk by prioritising petty gossip over distancing,’ he fulminated, to the righteous indignation of others, only to have scores tell them to mind their own business.
It’s all very far from the original aim of Nextdoor, which was launched in San Francisco in 2011, and now functions in 11 countries. Back then, its goal was to be a forum for neighbours to swap contacts for plumbers, praise the local lollipop lady and warn about marrow thefts at the allotment. Users register their postcodes and real names, and have to verify their accounts via email, meaning – supposedly – it should be much harder to fling about the kind of abuse that characterises platforms such as Twitter where you can be anonymous.
‘I saw a lot of kindness on Nextdoor at the height of the pandemic, but I also saw a lot of hostility,’ says Jenn Takahashi, creator of Best of Nextdoor, a novelty social media account which compiles the app’s most absurd highlights across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It has over 400,000 followers, including model Chrissy Teigen. Although she’s based in California, Jenn, 31, receives submissions from both the US and UK, and says she finds the app generally mirrors what’s happening in the world, which right now is ‘a lot of divisiveness.’
‘When I joined Nextdoor I couldn’t believe the ridiculous things my neighbours were posting about,’ she says. ‘There was one in particular who would post every day at 4pm about someone rearranging her garden gnomes. Then she would demand an apology on behalf of every gnome, using the name she had given to each of them.’
Describing herself as ‘chief lurker’, Jenn says she’s recently received numerous posts complaining about people not sticking to bubbles. ‘There’s a lot of shaming around those who don’t social distance. People have nothing to do but look out of their windows all day and so a tense situation fires up. From the UK, one of the first lockdown reports I received was of someone complaining their neighbour had opened their front door ten times that day, so they clearly weren’t sticking to their allotted one hour of exercise a day.’
Chatting with Jenn, I discover many Nextdoor topics transcend international boundaries. No matter where you live in the world, everyone loves a barney over litter, parking restrictions and speed limits. Her personal favourites include posts about older-model cars parked on a street with upmarket pretensions, or someone offering out-of-date baking soda.
Other hits include the vegan jogger demanding his neighbours keep their windows closed when cooking meat and another poster convinced her neighbours had concealed a spy camera in the sunflower that was protruding over her fence.
Other hot potatoes are fireworks (they’re pretty/they upset dogs), helicopters (cue an explosion of posts demanding to know what’s going on), and groups of teenagers – with a sighting of anyone aged under 18 guaranteed to send people into paroxysms.
Then there’s the evergreen subject of dog poo. ‘I’ve stopped accepting submissions on that, because there are so many, and I didn’t want to become known as the poop lady,’ Jenn sighs. Which is a shame, because otherwise I’d send her screenshots of the recent ding-dong I witnessed about dog poo bags left dangling from trees.
At the end of a tough year, with the nation simmering in fury, even the Nextdoor tradition of newcomers introducing themselves to the community has gone horribly awry. Recently, a new arrival from Serbia was told off for saying ‘must of’ instead of ‘must have’ in a post, while another, from Thailand, was asked if she was a prostitute.
It’s all proved too much for my friend Jonathan from Solihull, who recently quit his local group. ‘I got tired of the endless “I saw a man standing at the bus stop who looked funny” posts. But the final straw was when someone got in a state about potholes. She was trying to rally others to honk every time they encountered a pothole to get the people who lived nearby to raise the issue with the council. I was so aghast I decided to stop using an app I’d only ever joined to find out where the best curry house was.’
According to psychotherapist Dr Nicole Gehl, humans can’t help but be rude online, because we’ve evolved to communicate face to face using nonverbal clues that are lacking in typed words. ‘In the real world, there are many methods that can halt nasty comments, such as negative facial expressions. But online, those inhibiting factors don’t exist,’ she says.
Look at the person who used capitals to complain about the woman sunbathing during lockdown. Maybe they weren’t really screaming, maybe their Caps Lock key was stuck: either way, in real life, confronted by bemused faces, they might have calmed their anger down a notch.
Dr Gehl argues that, although apps such as Nextdoor might be intended to bring us together, too often the opposite is true. ‘You have less of an emotional connection to others online, even if they are living a few houses away. This detachment, and ability to say things behind a screen that we never would in real life, is called the ‘disinhibition effect’, making it much easier to be negative.’
Jenn says that the way to enjoy Nextdoor is to ignore the sniping (she refuses to publish unkind or aggressive posts) and instead revel in its insights into our neighbours’ dotty quirks.
‘When I see the pettiness on my Nextdoor update it’s a reminder none of us should sweat the small stuff. Best Of Nextdoor was created to bring levity into our lives and we should use Nextdoor in the same spirit – to make us smile, rather than angry.’
With neighbours like these…
The posts that made us seriously consider moving house
‘Does anyone have any advice about what do with a live lobster I’ve just found in the street?’
‘I had a party last night and I am agonisingly hungover. There is some mess to clear, though not huge, but I cannot bring myself to do it. Are there any cleaners in the Clapham area who can relieve me of the heavy burden?’
‘Hi guys, sorry about the noise. I recently bought a cannon from an antique store. A couple of days ago I shot a test round in my back yard and it was louder than I expected.’
‘Help! People have been walking in front of my house. This must stop. It’s driving my dog crazy.’