‘One of my neighbours secretly owned a giant rabbit: she was caught walking it around the communal garden in the middle of the night, wearing a torch on her head. It was like something out of a weird psychodrama.’
Sam* is part of a WhatsApp group with 40 other people, who all live in his block of flats in Sydenham, south-east London. ‘The rabbit was a big story,’ he says. ‘You’re not allowed pets in our building, so it was a violation of their contract. I think there was a meeting about it, and it all got a bit spicy.’
The group members are all of a similar age: late twenties to early thirties, professionals, many of them living in shared-ownership households. But rather than being a trusty source of advice and security, Sam says the chat has created a ‘surveillance state culture’, and is only useful about 15 percent of the time. He’s also too scared to leave. ‘Leaving would be a bit of a statement,’ he says. ‘There are some really archaic attitudes towards looking after the community there.’
It may feel like something from the early days of the internet, but neighbourhood forums are on the rise. Be it WhatsApp chats, Nextdoor or that ‘Friends of Hackney’ Facebook group you thought would be smart to join when you moved in, there are dozens of online platforms allowing us to connect with people in our local area – whether we’ve already met them face to face or not.
The app Nextdoor claims that one in four UK households are on the platform, rising to nearly one in three households in London. There are more than one billion people using WhatsApp, making it the most popular messaging app on the planet, and as of February 2021, there were more than ten million Facebook groups. But as this tech infiltrates every corner of our life – from helping us to save missing cats to coordinating a Jubilee street party to Karen telling you to turn down your Beyoncé on a Friday night – what can it tell us about communities in the UK?
The WhatsApp revolution
In 2011, WhatsApp launched their first group chat service. In 2016, its group chat capacity expanded from 100 people to 256, and in May this year, this was expanded again to 512. WhatsApp groups are used for everything from exchanging nudes to organising the school run, but they gained a new lease of life in March 2020. As loo roll and fresh produce flew off supermarket shelves around the country, tens of thousands of people joined Covid-19 Mutual Aid groups to help the most vulnerable people in their area. More than 4,500 of these groups still exist in the UK despite pandemic restrictions having been lifted – they’re all listed on the Mutual Aid website – and countless other informal groups operate in a similar spirit.
‘My WhatsApp group really came to the fore during lockdown,’ says Wendy Andrew, a 47-year-old counsellor from Croftfoot, Glasgow. Wendy is part of a group chat of around 20 people from a handful of nearby streets. ‘It was really uplifting. A photographer started to post nice nature pictures and everyone else would join in. We’d decorate our windows for Halloween and Christmas, and ask if people needed anything when going to the shops. It definitely reintroduced that neighbourly spirit which I think was missing.’
Heidi Selassie, a 35-year-old recruitment manager, moved from Hackney to Walthamstow five years ago and joined a WhatsApp group for her street. Living alone and with no family in London, she’s found the chat to be a ‘real game-changer’. ‘It’s been a bit of a lifeline,’ she says. ‘I’ve never felt a sense of community in London before.’ She messages on the chat every day, knows all of her neighbours by name and borrows bits and bobs for cooking. They use each other’s printers, speak to each other on the street and comfort each other if they’re feeling low. ‘It’s made me feel safe,’ she says. ‘I know when I’m coming back late at night, there will be someone around.’
While support groups can help to reassure residents – especially during times of uncertainty, like the early weeks of the pandemic – they can also have the opposite effect. ‘In our chat, there was always a sense of “Oh, I don’t recognise this person in the lobby,” or “Is someone having a party?” says Sam. ‘There were a lot of simmering tensions when neighbours were quite wary about other people, even when restrictions were lifted.’
It’s been a bit of a lifeline – I’ve never felt a sense of community in London before
WhatsApp groups are usually dominated by a handful of very active – and often outspoken – users. According to Professor Christine Hine, professor of sociology at the University of Surrey and an expert in online neighbourhood groups, our sense of community is heightened if we know that there are people out there doing good stuff. But if those chats are full of hostility, gossip, paranoia and suspicion, this can have the opposite effect: communities will break down. ‘These online groups give users a different way of understanding the people they’re passing in the street,’ she says. ‘They also relate to how much people will feel safe and secure when moving around local spaces.’
The Nextdoor effect
The archetypal community WhatsApp group echoes the basic model of Nextdoor: the Silicon Valley-founded social media platform that landed in the UK in 2016. With more than 295,000 neighbourhoods globally, the app offers hyper-local news feeds to verified users and a space to discuss anything from low-traffic neighbourhoods to robberies, in a sort of WhatsApp-meets-Reddit hybrid. The posts themselves are extremely varied. Here is a selection from the Dalston Lane neighbourhood feed in London:
‘Let’s organise a demonstration at town hall to get cyclists off our pavements.’
‘Menopause & Peri Menopause Online Support Group: I’m looking to start an online support group for women who are on this journey.’
‘Does anyone know what happened near McDonald’s near Holloway tube station? I heard it was a teenage boy trying to attack a girl. Rumour is he had a knife and gun?’
‘Please does anyone know who owns this cat? It keeps coming to my house... I’m not an animal person, the cat is annoying me, its meow is quite loud. Please please get your cat.’
‘Massive Rave in Canonbury Mews N5! Doesn’t matter that it’s a Sunday and people want to relax at home or get some sleep after working 90 hours in the hospital this week.’
You get the picture. The app’s popularity has rocketed in the last few years, with its daily active usage doubling on a weekly basis as the pandemic took hold in spring 2020. There have also been countless attempts to create knock-offs: this month, Meta confirmed it was shutting down Facebook Neighbourhoods, which was rolled out in the US and Canada after seeing the popularity of Facebook groups used by local communities. Google experimented with Neighbourly, which was available in India, and allowed users to ask neighbourhood-related questions in an open chat forum.
One of the issues with platforms like Nextdoor – as with all social networks – is that it’s not always positive. Disinformation is rife and people’s intentions can be unclear. ‘You have to be vigilant; I’ve had a couple of incidents where it’s been used like a dating app,’ says Nicki Rodriguez, 46, from Essex, who joined the app to help with her cleaning and decluttering business. ‘I’ve had enquiries from a few males for me to do work in their house and the messages have then very quickly progressed.’
In 2019, Nextdoor introduced ‘kindness reminders’, which pop up when users draft a post using provocative language. Later, they added ‘Covid misinformation reminders’ and a similar function targeting racist language following the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Racial profiling is rife on the platform, with many users sharing descriptions of people who they suspect are criminals or causing antisocial behaviour – often instead of reporting incidents to the police. ‘People make sense of these groups through their existing stereotypes, or understand the local area in terms of certain social inequalities and some areas being less privileged than others,’ says Professor Hine. ‘They project all of those framings onto other users.’
Rather than overcoming social differences, these apps reflect and magnify them
The idea that tech like Nextdoor could produce a utopian neighbourhood – one where everyone is sharing banana bread and cat-sitting and checking in on the elderly lady two doors down – is a pipe dream. ‘Three years ago, there was this big furore in the chat about schools bringing in teaching about homosexuality,’ says Heidi. ‘We have a lot of gay couples on our street. Let’s just say that religion clashed.’ Rather than overcoming social differences, these apps reflect and magnify them, especially in areas with strong class and ethnic divisions, or high crime rates. The result? Finger-pointing, fear-mongering and – quite possibly – more discrimination than in the IRL world.
‘Let’s not expect that for everybody across the country, we’re going to move to a lovely neighbourhood WhatsApp model where everybody can participate and be equal,’ says Professor Hine. ‘It’s more pessimistic than that.’
The bigger picture
A study in 2019 revealed that around five million Brits don’t know their neighbours by name – a phenomenon that’s particularly evident in cities. It’s telling, then, that the top UK regions that use Nextdoor are London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Leeds. ‘We’ve now got a reassertion of something like local communities, but in the virtual world,’ says Professor Hine.
Could the popularity of these platforms show we’re all desperate for a greater sense of community in the places we call home? Potentially, but it might also be telling of something else: gossip. Each neighbourhood in the UK has transformed into their own Real Housewives-style drama, in which every street is a spectacle to scroll through, the plot thickening with every message or post or chat or thread. No wonder all this online nosiness has in turn inspired all sorts of related entertainment, from the Best of Nextdoor Twitter account, which has amassed half a million followers, to the recently launched Welcome to the Neighbourhood BBC podcast, which sees Jayde Adams dramatising neighbourhood squabbles to comedic effect.
If NextDoor and local WhatsApp groups have done anything, they’ve made communities more visible, and to some degree they’ve reminded us that they still exist. They may offer us a sense of (virtual) belonging, they may alienate us from our surroundings – just like the internet as a whole. But whether or not we have neighbours with illicit bunnies, one thing they definitely have is good stories. Wait – whose tortoise is that on my verandah?
*Not his real name.