Sunday, July 27, 2014
Friendly neighborhood web site taking a toxic turn
An online website open to residents of an urban neighborhood in the northeast U.S. was designed as a way for neighbors to keep one another informed about everything from yard sales and local performances to police ticketing illegally parked cars and potential safety issues. It's not unique in its mission. Many online sites -- either freestanding or through other social media websites -- have proliferated over the past several years.
As neighbors lives have gotten busier, the sites offer a way to keep one another informed -- even if some users don't recognize the names of many of their neighbors doing the informing.
On the site in question, while hundreds of neighbors have signed up, only a handful are regular users. Others chime in occasionally to request the name of a good plumber or advertise some gently used furniture. It's the dozen or so regular posters who have command of the site.
Lately, the tone of the site has been decidedly alarmist, with posts about roving bands of young kids on bikes or complaints that children "from other neighborhoods" using the public basketball courts leave them littered with empty water and sports drink bottles. There have been posts raising concerns about whether these "outsiders" are frequenting the neighborhood parks to buy and sell drugs.
Others complain that police don't respond to their concerns quickly enough. Still others complain when police ticket cars parked partially on sidewalks because someone called to complain, even though such parking has been acceptable for years as a way of letting emergency vehicles pass through narrow streets when necessary.
Occasionally, some complaints strike some users as inappropriate, especially those veering into concern about "others" coming into the neighborhood to use the public parks and courts. When a site member responds to take such a poster to task, this triggers an angry back-and-forth exchange among the regulars.
What, then, are the majority of users who stay connected to the site for legitimate news and safety tips to do? Among themselves, many of these non-posting members gripe about the tone some posts, but is it their responsibility to challenge any post that seems tinged with racism or constitutes verbal bullying? After all, whenever someone does post a call for moderation, the discussion often gets even more heated.
It's good for neighbors to try to keep one another informed. However, when this results in more alarmist or offensive posts than useful ones, the value of the site is lessened.
The right thing for the non-posting users to do is decide whether the information they get from the site outweighs their frustration over the tone of some posts. If they find too many postings objectionable, they should quit the site and find alternative ways to get the information they need.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications programat Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
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