On December 14, a older, mangy, meowing cat that I didn’t recognize wandered into our driveway while my wife and I were in the garage. With the thought of the dozens of missing cat flyers posted all over our neighborhood, and without the means to house the cat with us until owners were found (if there were any), we did what we thought was best in the moment and took the cat to the shelter. We also posted in Nextdoor about finding the cat in hopes that someone would claim him or know to whom he belonged. Ultimately, the cat was reunited with his owner the same day, and the owner and I had a nice conversation: I apologized that he had to drive to the shelter, and he thanked me for our concern for his beloved cat’s well-being.
All’s well that ends well, right? Wrong. Turns out that my wife and I are horrible people, according to the users of Nextdoor, the social networking site for neighborhoods. Within minutes of our post about the cat, a neighbor commented unhelpfully that what we did was ridiculous and wrong. Over the course of the ensuing minutes and hours, the post spiraled into a mess of accusatory, hateful, rage-filled comments about how we were “evil,” waiting around to “kidnap” cats to take them to be euthanized. Anyone who tried to jump to our defense or add a comment that wasn’t in line with the hateful neighbor’s point of view immediately found themselves under fire. The attacks continued well into the evening, until my frustrated wife contacted Nexdoor to close the thread.
According to Nextdoor’s Community Guidelines, which can be found online on their Help Center page, the site wants “all neighbors to feel welcome, safe, and respected when using Nextdoor … The crux of our Guidelines can be boiled down to one simple statement: Everyone here is your neighbor. Please treat each other with respect.” Unfortunately, Nextdoor has fallen prey to the same fate as other social media sites such as Facebook: It’s become a platform for argument. Like other social media sites, this one allows users to freely take shots at each other in a way we would never do in person. Hiding behind a computer screen emboldens us to spew whatever hate we want without fear of repercussion, thanks to a veil of anonymity.
Nextdoor’s Guidelines continue, “The heart and soul of Nextdoor are the helpful conversations that happen between neighbors. When conversations turn disagreeable, everyone on Nextdoor suffers. Our Guidelines prohibit posts and replies that discriminate against, attack, insult, shame, bully, or belittle others.” But how can they possibly moderate every post to prohibit this kind of behavior? They can’t, and neither can Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media site that allows commentary. Even our local online media outlets, including the Independent, have removed the feature that allows readers to comment on their articles because of the alarming frequency in which the discussion devolved from civil discourse to childish bickering.
I’m ashamed to say that I have my moments of giving into the childish bickering, much to my accuser’s delight, I’m sure. We all have. It’s the world we live in … at least online. In person, we tend to live by a different set of guidelines. We are, on the whole, polite and kind. Respectful and cooperative. We worry about what others would think if they saw us rage and throw tantrums and yell like we do online. We know we can’t be a spiteful troll in the workplace or in public.
Sure, one could cancel their Nexdoor account, but would that really solve the larger problem? I’m not sure Nexdoor will ever have the capability of preventing attacks, bullying, or hate on their forum, and I don’t expect them to. It’s a risk of having what is otherwise a helpful site. However, we can take it upon ourselves to be the kind of neighbors online that we want to be in real life. We can have a helpful, kind conversation with someone even if we don’t agree with them. We can be … decent human beings. What an idea.