Neighborhood apps are great but IRL is better
I was surrounded by boxes in my new living room, trying to put my furniture back together, when I heard a knock on the door. Assuming it was a delivery, I stumbled downstairs, sweating in biker shorts and unstyled Crocs. At the door were my new neighbors, brandishing a snake plant and a smile.
This act of kindness stunned me and sparked a discussion with friends about etiquette when moving to a new place. Should I return the favor with a gift? A friend had bought a case of prosecco and delivered bottles door to door on their new street. Another watercolor card to post in mailboxes. But most of us agreed: showing up online is fine, unless you bump into someone on the street.
I crafted a fun but informative post introducing myself, along with a suitably fluffy photo of my cat, posting it to the street Facebook group. It was greeted instantly with likes and comments.
In recent years, interactions with our neighbors have increasingly moved online, to forums on WhatsApp, Facebook or Nextdoor, an app that connects users by location. Covid-19 lockdowns accentuated the trend; at the height of the pandemic, Nextdoor usage increased by 80% globally. “For many people, knocking on doors is an intimidating thing,” says Lindsey Brummitt, program director of Eden Project Communities, which organizes social events across the UK. “Online platforms have encouraged people to take that first step.”
While these forums can be helpful for recommendations on cleaners and cafes, the conversations inevitably lead to calls from lost cats, stolen packages and complaints about the board. The @bestofnextdoor Twitter account has amassed over half a million followers by sharing screenshots of the app’s most hilarious posts. One titled “Older model car parked on local street” reads: “We pay a lot of money to live in this neighborhood. It’s outrageous that we have to look at cars with such a low [book] assess.”
Nextdoor’s ticker symbol is KIND. But, as is often the case with social media, meanness can proliferate. Some users shame people for their behavior, often using doorbell camera footage. (The company says harmful or hurtful content accounts for less than 1.5% of views.)
Only online interactions are surely missing something important. In my old apartment, I made my first IRL (in real life) neighbor friend during the pandemic when I passed her excess cinnamon rolls on the balcony after a baking frenzy. She had just turned 60, more than twice my age, and was isolating herself due to health issues. We spent long nights putting the world in order, with little in common except a need for companionship and a love of gossip.
Sarah Friar, CEO of Nextdoor, is keen to encourage app users to interact in person as well as online. “You’ll always see us push on ‘real life’ events because we think that’s a key differentiator from other social media platforms,” she says.
Now that we can leave our homes and see our friends and family further afield, those who are physically closest to us may be overlooked. Around 41% of adults in the UK say they are more alone since the lockdown, according to a Red Cross report.
The neighbors operate by a tacit understanding: they open their doors if you’re locked out, watch your car for scratches while someone tries to parallel park, and collect your packages if you’re not there. Maybe I’ll give a potted plant as a thank you before too long.
Cristina Criddle is a technology reporter for the FT
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