Are you being listserved?

Iknow a lot about my neighbours. A family a few blocks away is getting ready to build a backyard deck. Several others are complaining about poor radio reception. I know who is looking for a babysitter and who is unhappy with their house cleaner, who has put in new storm windows and who is giving away an aquarium, fish included. And I’ve taken odd comfort in learning that many of us find water in the basement after a heavy rain and have advice about how to fix it.

The source of all this wisdom is my neighbourhood listserv, a lively e-mail exchange that is like a nattering neighbour on steroids, spreading electronic news bulletins, requests for help and suggestions – solicited and not – for household problems large and small.

My list, covering a mostly residential corner of Washington, DC, and nearby Maryland, is just one of tens of thousands run through Yahoo, the most popular platform for such groups, with thousands more around the world. The phenomenon is fast becoming a central element of modern life in some quarters – complete with analysis from social scientists about what it means for how we “neighbour”.

Some lists are like tidy bulletin boards, noting town festivals and council meetings and offering unwanted furniture to anyone who will pick it up. Some are more political, with debates about nearby stores and local government. But most don’t have the Sturm und Drang of mine, which has ballooned from 11 messages in its first month, six years ago, to about 1,000 a month this year.

The listserv often comes up in conversation with friends who live nearby – sometimes pointing out a helpful tip, sometimes sharing shock at the tone or at the surfeit of information contained in a message. The posts can be odd, such as the recent offers of old copies of Playboy (quickly snapped up) and cat litter that was no longer needed (I’m afraid to ask why). There are commentaries that make clear what kind of place I live in, such as the heated exchange – complete with economic analysis – about a fair wage for a full-time nanny. And there are discussion threads that make me think some of my neighbours need to get a life, including gripes that the morning paper delivery at 6:30am isn’t early enough and the endless ramble about whether the city authorities did enough, quickly enough, to clean up after a snow this past winter.

But the constant hum also includes an occasional thread that gives me confidence that I live in a nice, old-fashioned kind of place, where we look out for one another and help when we can.

“Hey, anybody know if there is a way for someone to get into a neighbour’s house to investigate/shut off water supply to what appears to be a burst water supply pipe on their 2nd floor?” asked one recent message. “There is water pouring out from the bottom of the upstairs window. I spoke with the next-door neighbour, who said she has tried to leave messages and e-mails with the person that lives there to tell him but it appears that he may be away. If anyone out there knows how to accomplish this – can the police get into someone’s house in a case like this? – this needs attention pronto.”

The suggestions came pouring in: call the fire department, call the water company, break in through a window (and be sure to cover it up again), don’t get electrocuted. A neighbourhood liaison from the mayor’s office even spotted the call for help and said police officers would be on the scene soon.

But a few minutes after celebrating the conversation, I started to worry. Is my virtual neighbourhood somehow crowding out my real one? Has the list made it too easy for us to get to know our electronic selves without ever meeting the real guy next door or over the back fence? Is this a dotcom dystopia, the inevitable residential corollary to Bowling Alone, the much-debated book by Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist, which posited that America’s social capital was eroding?

The worries led me to Keith Hampton, a sociologist who spent two years living in a basement apartment north of Toronto studying just this question. Hampton’s ethnography of “Netville”, a new, wired suburb, offers compelling evidence that listservs like mine can be a force for what he calls “good neighbouring”. He found that residents who were connected to the community message group recognised three times as many neighbours as their non-wired counterparts, talked with twice as many and visited 50 per cent more. Wired residents even made more telephone calls to their neighbours. “The social capital benefits are astounding,” declares Hampton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

He says many factors make it difficult for us to be good face-to-face neighbours these days, including longer commuting times, irregular work hours and an increase in the number of businesses and services that are opened on nights and weekends, when we used to bump into each other. There are physical and psychological barriers as well, such as bigger front yards and a simple fear that we might be imposing, which also limit our contact.

“Listservs turn out to be incredibly useful because they counterbalance these trends,” says Hampton, whose work on Netville from 1997 to 1999 was followed with a study of four neighbourhoods in the Boston area from 2002 to 2004, with similar results. You can communicate at any time – even if your neighbour is asleep or at work – and even exchanges about clean gutters and good plumbers provide openings for building more personal ties. “Very mundane discussions turn out to be very important,” he says. “Little cues that people give off, like ‘Hi, I’m a teacher’, help people recognise that there are people out there like them.”

Of course, things are not always cheery. When I e-mailed a friend in New York who studies social networks, he put me in touch with a friend of his who started a listserv so the residents of his small apartment building could avoid the perils of “the telephone game” and all have good information as they dealt with problems in the building.

“It just completely and totally broke the building,” says Rick, who didn’t want to use his real name and asked that details of the saga be left vague to avoid further upsetting his neighbours. People who lived just a few feet apart were treating each other as “quasi-strangers”, posting comments on the listserv they would never say out loud. “It de-neighboured us,” he says. “It caused a kind of bitterness and divisiveness that has taken years to work out.”

A real improvement only came this past winter, when residents used the list to complain about the frigid weather. “It was a shared adversity that was truly nobody’s fault,” Rick explains.

Hampton insists such bad experiences are the exception, not the rule, and says his research shows that, most of the time, people who live in apartment buildings – often young and transient – are less interested in being good neighbours than people at other life stages. He is so enthusiastic about the internet’s potential that he has created, a website designed to link neighbourhoods and “help people form local social ties” by making it easy to share information, post photographs and fax messages to elected officials. “We honestly do believe that this is a real tool for reversing the decline of neighbouring and the decline of social capital,” he says.

The tone doesn’t get rough on my listserv. Mary Rowse – who I met the old-fashioned way, when I bought furniture at one of her regular porch sales – says she started the list because she thought it would be a good way to share crime information but she quickly realised it could play a much broader role in bringing ­people together. She thinks exchanges are so lively now because the 2,000 or so members get so much from participating. “It’s human nature to share and be helpful. But I think it’s also human nature to seek help,” she says. “Sometimes it’s hard for people to do that but when they see other people doing it, they think: ‘Maybe I can get help.’”

Rowse and a handful of other volunteers check each message before it is posted to make sure it doesn’t embarrass someone. (Yahoo lets moderators decide whether or not to screen messages; listserv members decide if they want all the messages as they come, or summed up in a daily digest, making things a little easier on the inbox.) “I’ve sometimes said: ‘Are you sure you want to say this?’” she explains. “I try to be watchful and protective of people.”

Rowse is proud of the list and says it offers things you can’t get just by asking a neighbour on the street. “It’s a way to take advantage of the collective wisdom of so many people.” But when I ask her if we are more open to each other on the listserv than we are face-to-face, she seems to concede the point. “The irony is that maybe we’re more isolated in our homes and yet we share more with more people” through the internet, she says.

Fans of my listserv recently decided they wanted to share in a different way. They convened a potluck dinner at a nearby community centre, a chance “to put names to faces” and thank Rowse and the others who keep the e-mail flowing. About 100 people showed up, mostly well past the age of having to find a babysitter for the evening. There was a generous table of food – including three varieties of quiche lorraine, an ominous red salad (“contains nuts”) – plenty of wine and just the kind of conversation one would expect from this crowd. “I think we may have put our contractor out of business,” I heard one man tell a new acquaintance. Messages to the listserv the next morning proclaimed the party a success and a few days later someone posted the recipe for a well-received carrot cake.

But I’m still not sure what to think. I tracked down the man who lives next door to that burst pipe. He said he noticed the problem, reached his neighbour, who was out of town, and, with his instructions, got into the house and shut off the water – all before he saw the first message about the problem on our listserv.

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