How Social Media Turns Neighbors Into Vigilantes

My daughter and husband begged me not to do it. But I had seen one too many headlines about white people calling the police on black people for breathing. I had seen too many thinly veiled classist and racist Listserv comments, deployed from behind the safety of an iPhone. I was too frustrated with a growing number of city neighbors, full of digital courage but lacking basic face-to-face human decency. And now, too many of them are wasting my tax dollars with calls to the police.

I re-read the post on Nextdoor, a social networking site notoriously popular among gentrifiers, about calling the police on drivers blasting their car stereos too loud in our dense urban neighborhood. I crafted a biting response, and I hit “post.”

It did not bring back Tamir Rice or Trayvon Martin, but it did make me feel better.

It’s a problem all around the country ― a clash between changes in communications technology and changes in neighborhood demographics. For every San Diego do-gooder patting themselves on the back for using social media to catch bike-riding thieves; there are communities like the the ones in Portland that are torn apart over questions of etiquette. Beyond what could and does go wrong when racially biased civilians play cops and robbers, I worry about what all of this “neighborly” digital surveillance is doing to the social glue of our communities. Sometimes it seems these technological tools, designed to facilitate human connection, bring more heat than light.

Before social media, our neighborhood had a superb network of black grandmothers (and grandfathers) who used to sweep the front porches of our skinny D.C. row houses and report any and all suspicious activities directly to us. They would tell you if someone stole your trash can or lingered too long on your porch. They knew which kid missed curfew, and whose marriage was on the rocks, and who was out of town on business. Sometimes, they’d bring over plates of grilled rabbit or pound cake.

Today, these neighborhood pillars are dying off or selling out, and they are being replaced by yoga-mat-carrying, bike-commuting millennials.

Before social media, our neighborhood had a superb network of black grandmothers who used to sweep report any and all suspicious activities directly to us.

Many of our new neighbors are friendly people who caught on to the warm, porch-sitting culture of our D.C. neighborhood, which was shaped by generations of black families with roots in Virginia, the Carolinas and parts further south. But others often don’t return a simple “hello” on the street. Instead they pull out their iPhones and to log on to Twitter or Nextdoor to inquire about the weather or a lost bike, or to brag about calling the police on neighbors.

I need another social media feed like I need another tax deadline. But a few years ago, I decided to get on to Nextdoor, mostly as a defensive measure. I had been hearing about people using the site to post photos of “perps” in our neighborhood. These grainy surveillance pictures accompanied by frenzied, vague descriptions are bland enough to describe my husband and my son, who are 26 years and 50 pounds apart. It was only a matter of time before something went wrong with these self-appointed digital vigilantes.

We are a black family. And black people are currently under siege for walking babies while black, waiting at Starbucks while black, barbecueing while black and sleeping while black. When there is so little you can control, this was one thing I could do.

I thought of it as a community service: I wanted to know if some new neighbor was popping off about a beloved but eccentric neighborhood figure like Mr. Mumbles, a schizophrenic who rode his bike singing in a basso profundo so exquisite we dubbed him the “voice of an angel.” Or if someone was complaining about T., a sweet and completely harmless heroin addict who lived in a homeless shelter, who would wash cars and watch your back. If a new neighbor was posting about these men, I needed to know about it right away; that way, I could intervene.

I worry about what all of this 'neighborly' digital surveillance is doing to the social glue of our communities.

Some of my neighbors log on to do the same. It is our own counter-surveillance program. We monitor what amounts to a crime blotter for gentrification-related offenses. We all agreed that we need to keep our eyes on these strange people who moved into our community of skinny row houses. They move silently. They enter and exit through fortified garages, avoid eye contact and emerge only in odd hours. Often the only time we lay eyes on them is when our kids go trick-or-treating.

Some of them have strange ways. Just last week, a neighbor took to Nextdoor to post photos and complain about another neighbor’s trash spilling over. This neighbor always complains about rats, but look at what their trash looks like! he ranted.  

No doubt tipped off by someone in our clandestine network, the neighbor in question signed on to respond. We speak to each other every day, she told him. You never mentioned the trash issue to me. I had no idea that my English basement tenants had been leaving trash out like this. It would have been helpful if you told me, she typed. Boom.

A growing number of city neighbors, full of digital courage, but lacking basic face-to-face human decency.

In posting my response to the police-calling neighbor, I was just doing my part for the cause. But three days later, I got a notice from the site: “A message you posted was reported by another Nextdoor member as violating Nextdoor’s Community Guideline: Be Helpful, not Hurtful: Public shaming.”

My comment would be reviewed by the appointed community moderators for my neighborhood, who would decide if it will be taken down. But I could also voluntarily edit my comment.  

It figures. The same people who believe they are entitled to use the police to harass their neighbors, or as their own anti-anxiety drug, will also use social media tools avoid being called out.  

I ignored this message. I probably need to ignore this site altogether. It is probably best for all of us if we make more time to meet each other and learn to work these things out face-to-face, human-to-human.


Natalie Hopkinson is the author of A Mouth Is Always Muzzled.