It's become conventional wisdom that the proliferation of social media sites and the ease with which strangers can communicate has led to a deterioration of civility. This is only partly true.
Having been an opinion spouter long before Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat came along, I have always been on the receiving end of nastiness and abuse. (Also, lots of kindness and encouragement, but that's beside the point.)
Feedback used to come to me by letter, postcard and telephone. Then by email. And now, of course, on social media.
Over the years, I've learned that some topics are guaranteed button pushers. Abortion, immigration, systemic racism, and now COVID-19 vaccines, invariably unleash a deluge of response.
Years ago, as a very left-leaning talk radio host in Los Angeles, I could simply lean into the mic and utter two words — "illegal immigration" — and the phone lines would light up.
The takeaway: Our modes of communication have changed, but human nature has not and, as far as I can tell, never will. People are just as wonderful and horrible today as they always have been.
Which brings me to my latest social network obsession, Nextdoor, which connects neighbors based on their location. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, say, where you decide whom to follow, once you sign up with Nextdoor, you're automatically connected to other users who live near you. Notifications pop up in my email multiple times a day, and I cannot resist a click.
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The site is useful for retrieving lost keys and lost pets — the other day someone's giant sulcata tortoise went missing and a neighbor almost immediately found it. Users exchange recommendations for babysitters, house painters and dentists. That's nice, but it's the random skateboarder attacking a car or security video of porch pirates that I can't resist. The relentless cluelessness, sarcasm and tut-tutting that goes on in the comments section is an added bonus.
The company claims the app is used by nearly 1 in 3 U.S. households, although it is dwarfed by the behemoth Facebook, which is testing its own "Neighborhoods" feature in its quest to conquer the world.
Earlier this month, Nextdoor went public, taking as its ticker name KIND, because Nextdoor's goal is to "cultivate a kinder world."
Indeed, there are numerous acts of kindness and offers of assistance being offered among the neighbors on Nextdoor, but as is the case with other social networks, users just can't stop themselves from being jerks.
After someone recently posted about golf clubs that were stolen from his car, an incredibly unhelpful response popped up: "They're worth money. Why leave them in your car?"
When another user complained that the local post office did not heed her "hold mail" request while she was out of town, her neighbor offered a lecture about how no federal entity should be handling the country's mail anyway.
I cringe every time I read a post by someone looking to rehome a pet. Their reason is irrelevant — be it illness, death or divorce — and it sets off a predictable chain of comments. First comes an outpouring of sympathy, which is soon followed by a cascade of criticism. (How dare you abandon your pet?! You aren't trying hard enough.) Inevitably, someone then attacks the critics. (If you really cared about animals, you would offer to walk Snoopy twice a day.) At that point, I usually tune out.
Almost since its inception in 2011, the company has been plagued by accusations that it has become a forum for paranoid racists who post about "suspicious" people in their neighborhoods. Untold numbers of Ring camera videos have been posted to the site, alerting neighbors to dangers both imagined and real.
The criticism became so fierce over the last couple of years that the company instituted new policies aimed at ridding the site of discriminatory posts.
Nextdoor hired Jennifer L. Eberhardt, the Stanford scholar renowned for her research on implicit racial bias, to help develop ways to stop racist expression. Her recommendation, as she described it in a June 2020 TED talk, was to "add friction," or a way to get users to "hold on" for a moment and reconsider potentially discriminatory posts.
At her suggestion, Nextdoor also asked users to stop posting vague descriptions, such as describing people only by their race. "Nextdoor modified 'If you see something, say something' to 'If you see something suspicious, say something specific,'" said Eberhardt. (When neighbors post about theft, vandalism and/or harassment in my feed, they give detailed descriptions of alleged miscreants and do not specifically focus on race.)
In April, Nextdoor also launched what it described as an "anti-racism notification."
It now prohibits phrases such as "All Lives Matter" or "Blue Lives Matter" when they are used to undermine racial equality and the Black Lives Matter movement. It also prohibits the phrase "White Lives Matter" because of its association with white supremacy. If you type those phrases, your post will be blocked. I almost tested the ban but chickened out. If the algorithm failed, imagine how fast I would be canceled.
Thanks to Nextdoor, I've become alarmed about the amount of petty crime in my neighborhood, something to which I never gave much thought.
And I am stunned by the number of weird physical assaults that seem to have become a normal part of life here. I've recently seen photos of a male jogger who deliberately runs into pedestrians on the north jetty in Marina del Rey, a bike thief who always works a certain neighborhood, and a man who spits at people as they walk past him.
Maybe I need to spend less time on Nextdoor. TikTok, here I come.