Viral internet content, whether meme or catastrophe, burrows into our minds, because that is its way. But occasionally, rather than being replaced by something meaner or madder, a piece of it will set up home there, put the kettle on, never leave. And then I must work out… why.
A man in Philadelphia screenshotted and tweeted a post from nextdoor.com, a request from his pregnant neighbours for meals and favours. It included recipe ideas, their food preferences, and the detail that they’d leave a cooler for meals outside the door. The Sun headlined its piece on the Twitter thread, “YOU WHAT!?” continuing, “Fury as deluded millennial couple expecting baby ‘ask strangers to chip in cooking and cleaning’ because ‘they’ll be tired’.’’ A thousand more “YOU WHAT!?”s abounded, and a familiar kind of internet fury was unleashed, that heightened outrage, a brief sugar high.
This is what fuels the internet, of course, and many friendships, too – the mean bliss of mutual hatred, a linking of arms to form a community of righteous anger. And community is the thing that I kept coming back to, when, the following night, the couple’s cooler turned up in my dream, and the following week, when I found myself contemplating one of their recipe ideas for my tea.
I’ve written before about my own experience of Nextdoor, the website where neighbours are encouraged to share gardening recommendations and information about lost cats, a place that fosters a synthetic (if often warming) sense of community, in a time when such a thing is rare. Having spent time on this site, the pregnant couple’s request felt familiar, if only for its mundanity. But it jarred with the world beyond their doorstep for a number of reasons, the most obvious being the scope of the favour they were asking. They’d exposed themselves as needy – they’d asked for help, but… they’d asked wrong. Which makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what would be the correct way? When you are living far from family and those who love you, what is the correct way to ask for help?
When I first read it, I chuckled, I did. But as I swam deeper into the reactions my sense of unease grew, shifting quickly into a glum sort of hopelessness. I was lucky never to have to ask for help when I had a baby. It arrived in Tupperware, on tube trains, balanced carefully on laps. When I was going into labour, my friend cleaned our windows. When I was a week into a hospital stay and couldn’t bear the idea of company, my mum silently delivered meatballs then drove away again, an hour each way. Later, another friend took the baby while I had the most magical haircut of my life, an inch off the ends, spread thickly over an afternoon.
The question comes sometimes when sick or in need, “What can I do to help?” But often the true reply is gritty and dirty and dull, and few are prepared for honesty here. That exchange of love is only possible when you’re surrounded by people who know you. And today, few of us are.
These poor pregnant sods were vilified for asking for the benefits of a community. It became increasingly clear that reader outrage was based in disbelief that such benefits were a possibility. Which makes sense – it’s difficult to grasp the idea of physically taking part in such openhanded compassion, in part because we get so little respite from individual striving, and in part because the idea of community today is so nebulous and scarred.
It’s spring now, and I find myself impossibly moved by the sight of community gardens, thorn-strewn and blooming, and so departed from the rest of cities’ public spaces. Those spaces, now colonised by private money, and growing, it seems, into well-swept metaphors for the state of community today. A state where 2.4 million adult British residents report chronic loneliness. And yet, many are talking all the time, into the internet, where the possibilities of intimate connection are advertised like wartime propaganda.
There is little understanding that many of these communities are based in words, not action. It’s no wonder that Nextdoor couple got confused – like other internet spaces, they seemed to expect that if they clicked in the right place, their order for love would arrive before 9am the following day.
The international reach of this Nextdoor post has proven that today we’re all neighbours. Sometimes social media works in our favour, by aiding real conversations and providing entertainment in the dark, and sometimes it feels as if we’re pouring our entire selves into a beaker, only for it to turn immediately into steam.
But we shouldn’t deny the many possibilities for connections here, nor let the policing of favours get in the way of kindness. Real communities are often irritating, grabby of time, and require the dirtying of hands, but they are also nourishing. And they are also home. If we’re serious about ending loneliness, a neighbour shouldn’t have to ask for help – we should already have offered.