It’s a uniquely engaged citizen who turns up at a neighborhood meeting scheduled at the same time as the Mad Men season premiere to debate a recent spate of car break-ins on Main Street. Much less engagement is required, naturally, to fire off an angry email on the same subject.
This is the beauty of the neighborhood email list, that odd 21st century form of civic participation via what in any other circumstance would be considered spam. Ever since the first Yahoo! group wormed its way into America’s inboxes, people who have never previously been involved in their communities have found a way to do so without having to leave home, or put on pants.
If you’ve still never been on one, these lists (not to be identified on a reputable website by a certain more-common, but trademarked, name) are a blend of the old Craigslist message board and the older still community town hall, where strangers are as likely to plead for last-minute babysitters as they are to complain about some people who leave their garbage bins out on the street 24 hours longer than they really ought to. These email groups are strange, wonderful creations because they bring together people – sometimes thousands of them at a time – who would never otherwise interact to discuss things they’d never say to each other on the street, all in the anything-goes Internet atmosphere where it hardly seems like there are consequences to hitting “reply all.”
In our fascination with the sociology behind these lists, we conducted some highly unscientific conversations with people who run neighborhood email lists, participate in them, know about them, or have gone out on a date with someone who once told stories about lurking on one. And we’ve concluded that these lists have some universal features: a common cast of characters, regardless of whether the neighborhood is in suburban Atlanta or downtown Seattle, with a common mix of hilarious, lurid, delightful, and awkward encounters.
Thinking about joining one? The Atlantic Cities offers our guide to what we swear you’ll find on every such email list in existence. (Our guide is not, however, exhaustive, and we’re dying to hear about the wonders and weirdos on your email group, in the listerv-y spirit of community collaboration. So be sure to fill in the blanks in the comments.) And below, a couple of tips on how to maintain neighborly goodwill online.
1. The moderator. This is the person who, if such email groups didn’t exist, would be organizing your neighborhood speed bump petition. People who volunteer to run email groups volunteer to also run things in real life. Online, though, they come in varying management styles, from the moderator who personally approves every message (and deletes many in between), to the hands-off founder who believes you people can police yourselves.
2. The comic. This guy reminds people not to take the neighborhood email group too seriously by writing parodies of the neighborhood email group, on the neighborhood email group. Invariably, some people aren’t quite sure if they’re in on the joke, or the butt of it.
3. The loose cannon. This person is liable at any moment to pepper the email chain with profanity, personal attacks, or links to NSFW YouTube videos wholly unrelated to anything going on in the neighborhood. If your group has a hands-on moderator, you might not know these people exist. If your group is more loosely maintained, this is the person who will eventually force you to unsubscribe after you accidentally open an animated GIF of someone flipping the bird while your boss is in view of your computer screen.
4. The longtime resident. No matter how long you’ve lived in your neighborhood, this person has lived there longer, and will remind you of that fact every chance he or she gets. Favorite phrases include, “You don’t know the half of it,” “Back in my day,” and, “Perhaps it’s time for you to brush up on your local history.”
5. The doubter. This individual is never going to be sure that the existence of the email list is a good idea in the first place. Common concerns include the level of “hostility” often on display, whether the list is “private” enough, whether the list ever accomplishes anything other than clogging up her inbox, and whether local politicians and police officers are paying any attention.
6. The local business owner who is tasteful with his advertising. His bookstore is actually located in the neighborhood, and he limits his advertising – maybe once a month – to the occasions when something serious is on sale.
7. The local-ish business owner who is not. This guy neither lives in the immediate neighborhood nor runs a business that is actually located there. But every time he gets in a new shipment of stationery, he wants to keep people posted.
8. The armchair urban planner. This person is always ready to debate the pending arrival of the new mixed-use Ikea/condo with talking points about “economic development,” “transit corridors” and “walkable urbanism.” If you’re a regular Atlantic Cities reader, this person may be you. Tread lightly: This personality type is among the most sanctimonious characters you’ll encounter on any email group.
9. The lady who always puts awesome stuff out on the curb. Everyone loves when this lady posts. And then the next morning, there is a mad dash to her driveway for fancy steak knives and ‘70s vinyl.
10. The guy who wants you to pay for his crappy stuff. For $20, you can come tomorrow morning between 6:30 and 7 a.m. to collect from his front porch a box of rusted can openers. You can thank him later.
11. The ‘I have no shame’ guy. This man only posts when he wants to crowd-source the answers to personally embarrassing questions like, “Does anyone know of a dry cleaner that can handle really bad armpit stains?” Guys like this are the reason you can’t bring yourself to stop reading. It’s just too good.
12. The dog-poop vigilante. Before email was invented, this person would just have to mutter to himself while walking down the street, “why can’t people pick up after their dogs?!” But now he can broadcast this sentiment to all of his neighbors in a matter of seconds. And he does. IN ALL CAPS.
13. The neighborhood patrol nut. He won’t ever stop preaching to the whole group about how everyone needs to lock their car doors at night. Also, he sometimes sends horribly offensive live safety alerts like, “There is a black man walking down Washington Boulevard right now.”
14. The entitled mom. Chances are, she’s the reason why your neighborhood has an email group in the first place. So she’ll start as many threads about strollers, play dates, or playground maintenance as she damn well pleases, thankyouverymuch. Any suggestion that not everyone on the list is as interested as she is in catering to the whims of her perfect offspring will be met with overt hostility and a stern reminder that you are not spending enough time “thinking of the children.”
15. The entitled pet owner. See above, but substitute “children” for “animals.”
16. The do-gooder. This is the person who organizes the birthday-card campaign in the mailbox of the neighborhood centenarian who doesn’t get out very much. Seek out the rarely-seen-in-the-wild do-gooder in real life and bake her cookies.
17. The lurker. This personality type makes up no less than 86 percent of the subscribers to every group. But it’s unclear exactly how many of these people a) are just on the list for the entertainment value, b) are afraid to write an email to 3,000 strangers or c) are just waiting for someone to offer up fancy steak knives.
18. The “reply all” guy. If Ethel is looking for someone who knows a good antique sewing machine repairman, this individual will respond with the answer… to everyone.
19. The “I agree” guy (a subset of the “reply all” guy). This guy frequently responds to all 10,000 of his neighbors with a two-word contribution to any neighborhood debate: “I agree.” Every now and then, he might also chime in with, “Me, too.”
20. The accidental “reply all” lady. This person meant to reply off-line to a neighbor regarding that recent robbery spate, but instead inadvertently announced to hundreds of strangers that her house at 659 Pitt Street will be empty this coming weekend, Feb. 25-27.
And some universal neighborhood email list etiquette:
You don’t have the right to anonymity. Unless you're looking for a good divorce lawyer. Then, maybe, the moderator will grant you this.
Don’t question someone’s motive. You’re welcome to disagree with a neighbor, but you probably shouldn’t suggest, in front of everyone he knows, that he’s clearly in the back pocket of the supermarket developer who wants to destroy the neighborhood.
Avoid the appearance of self-promotion. Not a great idea to reply-all to someone’s search for a plumber by telling everyone, “Me! I’m just the plumber you’re looking for!” If you are in fact a local plumber, best to politely contact that person off the list, and then perhaps ask them later if they’d be willing to recommend you to the list.
Do not push your kid’s holiday wrapping paper school fundraiser. Also applies to: girl scout cookies, raffle tickets, etc. Everyone else’s kid is also selling these things. Your kid doesn’t have a monopoly on the neighborhood email market.
Don’t name-check people by address. For example: “What the hell is going on at 1619 South Street? That front lawn is really dragging down all our property values.”
Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to your neighbor’s face. Because then it will be really awkward when you do, in fact, run into your neighbor’s face. Never forget that later that same day, everyone will be talking about this incident on the email list.
Sommer Mathis contributed to this story.