Dena Levitz is a digital strategist and freelance writer in Dublin whose work has appeared in such publications as the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The Crime Report.
Please do not invite everyone to your kid’s piano recital.
Preliminary reports of a blood trail winding through a D.C. community were all neighbors needed to go wild with speculation. Suddenly, the Caroline Street email list was flooded with messages guessing about injuries and ranting about the neighborhood going to hell, says resident Lee Berkeley Shaw.
As rumors flew, officials discovered the real blood source: a dog that was being treated at a local vet’s office, where the blood droppings stopped.
“The good news is that no one was stabbed,” Shaw says. “The bad news is I looked at my inbox and—wow—there were a lot of emails about that.”
Imagine chatter about a pesky helicopter flying overhead at 3 a.m., a lost puppy announcement, and a heated discussion about graffiti all appearing in the same digital space. Ta-da! That’s the hodgepodge of entries occupying list members’ inboxes thanks to email lists via Yahoo, Google, Nextdoor, and more.
As Shaw puts it, hers is “a very localized Craigslist,” hilarious and dramatic and full of people trying to pawn off extra bookshelves. She’s often torn about whether to stay subscribed, but she hasn’t quit yet. There’s value to be had and, according to many email list aficionados, ways to make the most of the forums without becoming an insufferable human.
Advocate for public safety—not public panic
Crime reports are a major part of why residents get in on the email list action. Like being part of a Neighborhood Watch, they feel safer knowing what’s happening outside their doors. But there’s a limit. Nashville resident Leah Newman says a woman on her neighborhood group is notorious for listening to a police scanner 24-7 and, like a court stenographer, jotting down everything she hears and relaying it. What she considers being vigilant, the rest of the community might view as overzealous.
In the case of a hit-and-run incident earlier this summer, four suspects fled the scene and the woman took to her computer to give a play-by-play. Some readers got carried away, urging everyone to get their guns and catch the criminals.
“People were literally inside their house with the lights out hiding from this guy while others were outside with flashlights and rifles,” Newman says.
But that frenzy—and the 400 messages batted back and forth—probably didn’t help matters. Instead, the better course of action is to exercise restraint and not get carried away posting incidents in real-time or suggesting that neighbors take matters into their own hands.
On the other hand, email lists can be a great way to alert neighbors—and the police—to that string of break-ins they seem to be ignoring.
Appoint a reasonable moderator
Filthy language and outspoken opinions are a few of the sticky areas that come up on neighborhood email groups. Enter, the moderator, who’s trying to keep the peace—or, as Mike Dexel refers to it, “coaching” effective posting. Dexel, president of the Northeast Neighborhood Association in Olympia, Washington, also monitors the neighborhood’s 500-person Google Group. He has to give the go-ahead before someone can start a new discussion thread. Usually this proves to be overly cautious, but it’s an extra safeguard against the handful of vitriolic posts that might get through otherwise.
Once, not long ago, a retired veteran wanted to promote a community garden he was opening—a project to help fellow vets get back on their feet. Solid premise, but the man got carried away in his proposed post, chronicling his mental struggles and the overarching hurdles vets face.
“He’s a good guy but he used a lot of vulgar language. The tone of it was just too much,” Dexel says. “I wrote back and asked him to tone it down. He did and it turned into something I felt good about sharing.” The lesson here is to know your audience—and to have a moderator who knows them, too.
Even for email groups without an official moderator, it’s possible to let participants express themselves without tearing each others’ heads off in the process, says John Killeen, who works with Durham, North Carolina’s Neighborhood Improvement Services Department. Someone just has to be willing to tell people to knock it off and then diffuse any name-calling or bullying if tensions flare.
Act like a polite, sane adult
Killeen suggests thinking of interactions on a neighborhood list as something similar to engaging with a neighbor whom you’ve only bumped into walking on the street. So his advice is to act the way you’d act if he or she posed an off-the-cuff question in that scenario.
Check your hostility. “You’re logging into email because it’s part of your daily routine,” he says. “You don’t need to be greeted by aggressive emails, just as you wouldn’t want to be met with aggression on the street.”
Proceed with caution. Phillip Bost, whose site maps Durham neighborhoods, offers this analogy: Think of the email group as the equivalent of a dinner party “where you aren't well-acquainted with everyone in attendance.” Err on the side of sensitivity.
Avoid using the email group as your own P.R. machine. It’s fine to give a shout out to the local farmers market. After all, promoting community events falls into what Shaw calls the “great neighborly aspect” of the email list. But it can easily go too far. No one likes the person who preaches about composting several times a day or is mentioning a wrapping paper fundraiser hourly.
Don’t be incendiary. “Don't bring up contentious political or religious issues if you're not ready to hear the other side,” Bost says. “It's easy to pick fights, but neighborhood mailing lists lack the anonymity of most of the web. You're posting as yourself to very real people who live very nearby. Ask yourself if the battle is worth it.”
When email lists work
Despite their potential for drama, Bost, sees email lists as an unparalleled way to “digitally bind” a community.
For starters, many people simply won’t show up to an in-person meeting. Or, those who do might not feel comfortable mentioning personal gripes the way they could digitally. There’s also the chance that someone would feel shy about a request that seems out of left field. “What if you just attended to ask for a recommendation for a good roofer?” Bost asks.
Signing up for the neighborhood dispatch can also help recent transplants feel more rooted in their new community. That’s one of the first things Shaw did when she moved into her new home in D.C. and it’s helped her get to know those who live nearby.
Elizabeth McIntyre, who runs D.C.’s Columbia Heights Yahoo group and website, also cites the powerful way these digital means can mobilize residents who are unhappy with something happening in their area. For instance, when her community was peeved with a development project set to take place nearby, they took to the Yahoo group to organize a protest. Then, meeting up in person spurred several neighbors to start up a regular community marketplace for artists and farmers.
Electronic mailing is also a great equalizer. No matter a resident’s age, education level, or technological savvy, most anyone can check and send email.
“Even hermits use online mailing lists. Maybe especially hermits use online mailing lists,” Bost says. “Many have great ideas and opinions to share, but you won't find them at the fall neighborhood picnic.”