This week in The Global Tiller, we walk into the streets of our neighbourhoods to look at who's making news and where it's coming from? Has the pandemic and social media made us close our curtains or are we rekindling ties to make sure there is a doorbell we can ring in case we run out of eggs.
Full disclosure: I’m not sure I can ring any doorbell in our apartment building in Tahiti to borrow some eggs. First, I would need to rehearse the right phrase in French to ask for "des œufs". Even then, I’m not even sure how many apartment units on our floor are even occupied.
This is quite unlike the apartment building I grew up in, in Karachi, where my mother and her friend next-door would exchange entirely prepared meals through the kitchen window.
I’m not sure if its millennial social awkwardness or the fact that social media keeps us so connected with family and friends far away that we don’t really feel the need to interact with next-door neighbours.
But there are many people who felt the lack of community which led to a proliferation of local community groups on social media, and apps like NextDoor, Citizen and Neighbors. Even Facebook is testing out a new feature called 'Neighbourhoods'. The purpose of these groups is manifold - to allow people to share traffic and road closure updates, report accidents or stolen items, or complain about those who leave their dog’s poop on the street.
People across the world made good use of this convenience. People in Chennai used WhatsApp groups to share tips on how to save water, while others in Montreal shared second-hand clothes and recommendations for handymen.
As local newspapers and other information sources dwindled, many community leaders used such groups to reach out to their constituents. In fact, many politicians prefer to send out their communications directly on such groups instead of talking to local journalists, who add an additional layer or context and criticism to the political message.
Naturally, since this is a micro form of social media, it warped into something much more sinister than how it was originally intended. The administrator of Halaat Updates, a closed Facebook group sharing traffic updates in Karachi, actually received death threats when he had to ban someone for abusing other members.
In other parts of the world, it has become a tool of misinformation. In Delaware, a failed referendum in 2019 (fuelled by disinformation on NextDoor) almost cut down sports and extracurriculars in schools and the potential layoffs of teachers. In East London, people named and shamed those leaving rubbish on the floor - an incident which turned so nasty that next-door neighbours are now hesitant to even meet each other’s eyes, let alone say hello when they run into each other. Even worse, crime reporting apps are creating inaccurate perceptions of fear and violence, leading to discrimination against stereotyped communities.
I’m reading Edward Snowden’s 'Permanent Record' these days and learning a lot more about the anonymity of the early internet days. Now, our internet lives are very much connected to our real lives. I get that mandating real names and real credentials ought to make people more responsible on social media. I mean, if you are trolling your neighbour on Facebook, you would have to avoid the common elevator on your way to work. But has it really improved our relationships to those living close to us?
Is giving up on the internet the only solution to keeping friendly relations with our neighbours? Or can we count on human decency to drive out the loud trolls on these apps? What do we lose when we receive information directly from a politician, instead of hearing it on the news? Now that these technologies are part of our lives, how can we regulate their usage to make the most of the connectivity it offers?
What about you, are you part of your neighbourhood’s WhatsApp or Facebook group? How do they work for you?
We look forward to hearing from you. Until next week, take care!
Hira - Editor - The Global Tiller
Pause to laugh
…and now what?
I’ve been living in Tahiti for more than 20 years now. I have all my friends and most of my family here. I’m part of a local community or should I say communities: of entrepreneurs, of runners, of former students, of residents of this and that neighbourhood, etc. One would say that I’m a full member of the community, and I would even feel that I’m part of the broader Pacific community because I share experiences, habits and some traditions with all the inhabitants of the region.
Yet, in 2019, someone told me: you don’t belong here.
More than anything, it made me wonder: what does it take to be part of a community? Especially in today’s time, when you can belong to any community where members are spread all around the world but with whom you share closer interests than with your next-door neighbour or even your extended family.
You can blame globalisation, the internet, or modernity (the so-called three big evils) for confusing people’s sense of identity with what makes a community. Or you can argue the exact opposite. The thing is, no one has a clear answer because identity, at the end of the day, is quite a personal experience.
As humans, we need to belong. We belonged in families, then clans or tribes, then cities, then countries and now, the world.
Think globally, act locally.
Are we designed to think that broad while being a part of a local community? Science will tell you groups (in terms of close interactions between people) have a number limit. But nothing really says that there must be a geographical limit. Social media has proven that indeed we can connect 7 billion people, for the good and for the worst.
Think globally. As in, see yourself as being able to connect with any human on this planet. Act locally. Don’t forget that if you care for someone on another continent, you can also care for the person next door. These are not incompatible. They should actually feed each other: the more I care for one, the more I care for many.
Yet, in order to do this, we need indeed to “like our neighbour”. And there you have it: how would you define a neighbour? Does this concept impose geographical boundaries? Mentality similarities? Physical similarities? How would you define your kin?
You may want to blame social media, technology and so on for disconnecting people or fuelling division. But those are the tools that have been the spark for the expansion of our natural tendencies. As much as we can love each other, the flip side is that we can also hurt each other. No tool will tell you how to do it, it’s a matter of choice.
I may not belong in the Pacific and I’m sure I don’t belong anymore in France, where I was born. So, where then? I once heard someone say: “home is were people miss you”. I know that some people miss me (not that I’m so indispensable but I have good friends) all around the world. So do I belong to this planet eventually? Do I belong to this species? I do. Beyond the boundaries of visible differences, our shared nature is what makes us belong to each other.
Will we find a way to see beyond differences and create our own beautiful neighbourhood? As Mr Rogers would say:
I have always wanted to have a neighbour just like you,
I’ve always wanted to live in a neighbourhood with you.
So let’s make the most of this beautiful day,
Since we’re together we might as well say,
Would you be mine?
Philippe - Founder - Pacific Ventury