Polarization is a growing problem, according to a lot of people who pay attention to these kinds of things. Political scientist Alan Abramowitz wrote a book called “The Polarized Public,” and prominent political pundit Ezra Klein called polarization “the single most important fact about American politics.”
The respected Pew Research Center found in a recent study that Americans are more divided than at any point in the last two decades.
Technology contributes to the problem, and it will probably get worse. Robert Putnam wrote “Bowling Alone,” a book that advanced the thesis that we are increasingly disconnected from family, friends and neighbors, in 2000 – before Facebook and broadband Internet.
Now, there’s no need to bowl alone – why leave your home for entertainment?
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We used to get news from the newspaper or evening news. Now, many of us get it from Facebook friends sharing a link to a story that “proves” our side is right.
In a recent column, David Brooks of The New York Times lamented the “dysfunction” of politics and said Americans are good at maintaining relationships with close friends and family and with others around the globe who share their interests, but not with “middle ring relationships” such as the people in our neighborhoods.
He said the key to a less polarized society is to nurture the thick local membership web, which means (if I’m not oversimplifying): Get to know your neighbors. Brooks didn’t say this, but I will: Pay a little less attention to your Facebook friends and go out and make some real friends.
But keep in mind, technology can also be part of the solution. Nextdoor.com is a website that allows neighbors to chat and exchange information with people in their neighborhoods – anyone who has signed up for it.
Nextdoor.com has transformed our neighborhood – Hidden Valley II, near the intersection of Lead Mine and Lynn Roads in North Raleigh – since we began using it over a year ago. It has allowed us to get to know one another like we never have before. I am learning names of neighbors I have seen for years but never had the opportunity to get to know.
Nextdoor has helped us organize a giant yard sale, as well as an effort to replace the sign at the entrance to our subdivision. We formed a homeowners association. We’re planning a block party for the summer.
This is not to mention many individual contacts. I bought a refrigerator from someone on the next block, and many people have gotten recommendations from neighbors on handymen or contractors, or found babysitters. When there’s a problem – suspicious person in the neighborhood – we have used Nextdoor to exchange information. Police departments can also post warnings to Nextdoor. At least for some neighborhoods, it is rendering Crime Watch programs obsolete.
I’m aware that some communities have had negative experiences with Nextdoor, but from what I’ve seen the disputes it has facilitated largely reflected disputes already in the neighborhood. And some have complained that Nextdoor collects our information and sells it to marketers. Yeah, well, welcome to social media.
Recently, we had a meeting, and I had a houseful of neighbors who had never been inside my house in my 17 years here – including one of my next-door neighbors. I do not know the political views of most of them because we did not come together to further a political cause – just to be neighbors.
If we stop looking at videos of clever cats and naughty puppies – OK, cut down on them because they are cute – and start using the Internet to unite us, there is hope.
Dan Holly is president of his neighborhood homeowners association, the Hidden Valley II Neighborhood Community.