If you’ve been on Twitter recently, chances are you’ve seen the latest trend to take the platform by storm: texting your “number neighbour.”
It’s a simple yet ingenious concept. All you have to do is text your “number neighbour” — the person who has the phone number one digit away from your’s — and see what happens.
As far as the criteria for going viral on the Internet go, this trend checks all the boxes. It’s extremely easy to do, it’s even easier to share with others, and every person has their own, unique experience.
I don’t want to focus too much on the responses people have gotten; you can check out this Buzzfeed article for some examples. What I think deserves more attention is what the trend says about our society.
As far as avenues of communication go, texting is one that requires relatively little time, energy or focus. You don’t need to make eye contact, decide on your body language, figure out your tone of voice, pick a facial expression, or make any of the other subtle yet important choices you make when you talk to someone face-to-face.
If your number neighbour’s reply is funny or kind, great! If it’s not, you can block them, delete the conversation, or simply leave them on “read.” After all, nothing ties you to this person except from having identical phone numbers, save one digit. At least you can say that you tried.
But can you say the same about your actual neighbour?
According to a survey conducted by the Toronto Foundation, 2/3 of Torontonians only know a few of their neighbours — or none at all. A study from Pew Research found that 35% of Americans say they’ve never spent time with their neighbours, while less than 20% do so more than once a week. This is sharply contrasted by the state of neighbourliness in 1974 America, when 30% of Americans would spend time with their neighbours more than once a week, while only just over 20% would never see them.
Books like The Lonely American and The Vanishing Neighbour have outlined a few of the powerful forces that have spurred this dramatic change in society —more working hours, longer commutes, and the steady integration of technology into our everyday lives, to name a few.
These adaptations have amounted to the very definition of neighbourliness evolving drastically over the past few decades. While being a good neighbour once meant checking in on others, helping out with the kids, or simply stopping by to catch up, the focus has shifted (for many) to respecting others’ privacy and minimizing any disturbances.
Knowing your neighbours not only has personal value — studies have shown the vital role of meaningful relationships in our health and happiness — but a powerful impact on the health of our democracy. Seeing and interacting with your neighbours means getting to know the people behind the gated, padlocked doors that have become commonplace in our communities. How will we ever overcome our biases and learn about the unique experiences of people who are different than us if we never even bother to engage with them?
It’s the launchpad for a vicious cycle of paranoia. We suspect those around us, so we lock up and protect ourselves from the outer world, reinforcing our firm belief there are people we need to be protected from. In the comfort of our homes, we’re free to “flame” and demonize others online, finding networks that align perfectly with our pre-existing world views.
I could go on and on about the benefits of knowing our neighbours, but I’ll save that for another time. What Twitter’s latest obsession allows us to do is reflect on the roles of digital and physical relationships in our lives, and when the former should substitute or complement the latter.
Reaching out to the person next door undoubtedly comes with more risk than texting your number neighbour. If it doesn’t go well, you’re stuck with bumping into them on the daily. Abandoning the relationship is far more difficult than the one with your digital next-door companion. So it forces you to try again, to make amends, to see the situation from their perspective. In other words, it requires effort and empathy — two of the most important ingredients in the success of any healthy relationship.
Unfortunately, like I mentioned in an earlier post, speaking with someone in person and in real time has become awkward for many of us. We seem to be unwilling to deal with the complexity of human relationships — understanding body language, overcoming matters of difference — so when the efficiency and comfort of our keyboards present an unbelievably easy alternative, it becomes almost impossible to resist. But this lack of connection is the root cause of so many issues that plague our society today.
I don’t mean to suggest that all physical relationships are entirely good and all digital relationships are entirely bad. But our ability to “connect” so easily with our number neighbours and widespread struggle to do the same with the person down the street should give us pause. Doing so will allow us to make thoughtful decisions about who we engage with and how we engage with them — an essential building block of a safe and thriving society.
Thanks so much for reading! I would love to hear about the role that physical and digital relationships play in your life. If you like what you read, feel free to check out my other posts and follow me.