How the internet ruined the Neighborhood Watch
Most people, whether they want to admit it or not, are pretty nosy. They want to know why there were cop cars parked outside their favorite restaurant last night, which driver was at fault for the accident they passed on their way to work, and why there was caution tape blocking off the street next to their kid's school.
Most people, whether they want to admit it or not, are also pretty impatient. Instead of waiting to see if the local news will have a report on it, they want answers now. They'll whip out their smartphones, punch in a string of words related to the incident ("car accident 8th Street and Main August 8 noon"), and hope to quickly get to the bottom of things.
And it makes sense. Of course you would want to know what's going on in your neighborhood — it directly affects you, your family, your friends, and your neighbors. If there's been a rash of car break-ins on your street, you want to be aware of this, so you can park under a streetlight and have that extra reminder to never leave anything valuable in your backseat. That's why so many areas have a Neighborhood Watch program in place.
But these days, Neighborhood Watch isn't just in effect on your streets, but also online. And this is where we run into trouble. Gossip spreads fast enough from mouth to mouth. Throw in a person who can type 140 words a minute and a Wi-Fi connection, and it's a whole different ball game.
There should be no better place to turn to than your local area's Nextdoor site or Facebook group. Under perfect circumstances, users would go on the site and share the information they received (only from trusted sources, of course), ensuring the whole neighborhood was on the same page. But that's not always what happens. Instead, people often use these groups to get on their soapboxes and complain about the problems of society, posting often-times racist and classist rants that in turn receive comments that would be more appropriate on a bathroom wall. There is no discussion, no consensus building, no coming together to find a solution. Indeed, neighborhood social media networks are quickly becoming some of the nastiest corners of the internet.
There is a Facebook group in my city that I'll call the Town Crier. For every legitimate post about a lost dog or the dozens of police cruisers outside Trader Joe's, there are 10 more with tales of people who use EBT cards to buy groceries only to drive away in a Mercedes, or groups of teenage hooligans roaming through the streets on the devil's favorite mode of transportation — gasp! — skateboards.
Then there's the misinformation being spewed by people who binge watched Law & Order one Sunday and now claim to have an intimate understanding of the judicial system, and others who apparently are privy to things no one else is. One woman on the Town Crier posted that homeless people have more rights than other citizens because they have free lawyers through the ACLU and even when they are violent and threatening, the police are too afraid to step in. Good to know!
I'm sure this isn't unique to the Town Crier. Here are a few examples of the archetypes you might find on your own neighborhood social media group:
The Casual Racist
Hey, this guy doesn't see color, okay? But … there was a group of black teenagers on the sidewalk on Monday afternoon and on Friday morning, he noticed that some of his flowers were trampled on, so there has to be a connection, right? This person stays incredibly busy keeping tabs on "urban" young people as they walk down the street, his eyes laser focused on every step; meanwhile, some white kid just jacked his bike.
Everything is a big deal and a personal affront to this person. She often starts her diatribes with the faux question of, "Am I the only one who … ?" knowing full well that she is not. She wants head pats and reassurance, and is most definitely in the comments section thanking the people who have rushed to her defense and demanding sympathy from those who leave her snarky replies.
The John Wayne Wannabe
It doesn't matter what the post is about, the answer is always the same: "That's why I have a concealed weapon permit!" "Try that with me, and I'll show them my .38!" These people get off on the whole good-versus-evil thing, fear-mongering, and thinking the worst is going to happen. Not every person knocking at your door is there to murder you and your entire family; sometimes it really just is the UPS guy.
The Mrs. Kravitz
She knows everything, and spends so much time looking out her window, there's a permanent smudge print from her nose. She knows when you leave for work and when you come home, what time the tree trimmers showed up, and that the plumber needed to make an emergency visit on a Saturday night. Don't bother trying to keep anything from her; it's impossible.
We've got someone here who, instead of working at the think tanks in Washington, is gracing our humble community with his knowledge of everything, so don't even bother questioning the fixes he's come up with for various problems. You heard it here first: The solution to ending homelessness was brought forward by some dude whose Facebook bio states he graduated from the School of Hard Knocks and whose cover image still has an iStock watermark.
The Well-Intentioned Citizen
Not everyone is terrible, of course. This person has a natural curiosity and just wants to know what's going on in their backyard, or maybe they found a lost dog and are searching for the owner. They are the type to cautiously leave a comment imploring people to look at a situation from the other side, and then are the recipients of a pile-on telling them to take their magnanimous approach to life elsewhere.
Look, I love the idea of neighbors coming together to have a discussion, but that's just not what's happening in a lot of these online community groups. Sure, it's comforting to hear opinions that match your own, but echo chambers can be dangerous, and so can swatting down dissent. There needs to be real talk about what's going on in our neighborhoods, but that's hard to do when the people you're trying to talk to would rather post memes or attempt to pass off a typo-riddled urban legend as their own experience. Instead of being a Ranter or a Know-It-All, let's all strive to be a Decent Person, who gathers all the facts before jumping to conclusions, doesn't turn every situation into an opportunity to bash someone, listens to what others have to say, and genuinely cares about the people who make up their community.