Last spring, as my family hauled boxes into our new house, our neighbors gathered on the sidewalk. We exchanged data points: ages of kids, jobs, schools. “Are you on Twitter?” asked Brian from two doors down. Turns out he had an active feed (and a Tumblr account and a blog). Megan, next door, did too.
It wasn’t as if we were technological newbies; we’d found the house on Facebook in the first place. Sniffing around Windsor Terrace one cold November afternoon, I’d posted a status update marveling at the free Wi-Fi in the 15th Street subway station. Minutes later, a friend commented, asking why I was there—and within hours, another friend, who lived in Wisconsin and whom I hadn’t seen in years, chimed in to tell me her friend was about to put her place on the market. Before the week was out, we’d made an offer—although not before we’d mapped out educational options on Insideschools.org, taken a Google Maps tour, and conferred with my bitchy anonymous pals on YouBeMom. (We also visited.)
To listen to the doomsday pundits, one might assume that social networking is the death of the neighborhood: so cold, so virtual, so alienating! But serendipity, and human intimacy, come in many forms. Soon after we moved, I found myself sitting in the local community garden, watching my kids play in the sandbox while I surfed Foursquare—it was like having invisible locals whispering in my ear, filling me in on dive bars and diners a few blocks away. (“Best place to write in Park Slope. Go,” read a Foursquare tip for the café I ended up making my regular place. Also: “Come ogle Kelsey, the sexyhot barista on Sunday mornings.”)
I scanned Brokelyn.com and The Skint for free concerts. I subscribed to Park Slope Parents, which led to a playdate in Prospect Park, a trailer for my husband’s bicycle, and a suede blazer I scooped up at a stoop sale on my way to a professional event. It was the opposite of alienating: Even before I knew anyone, I had so many prickles of connection, a helpful layer of half-knowledge that deepened by the day.
A lot of this was pragmatic, like finding a good handyman on Brownstoner. When we needed patio furniture, I punched up a Zipcar on my iPhone, then, as my husband drove, I scrolled Craigslist, shooting off e-mails on the fly. (We ended up buying eight bright-pink designer chairs from a Thai restaurant closing down on upper Fifth Avenue.)
But there was also the personal aspect, harder to describe—the array of in-flux, quasi-peripheral, ambient links that were forming between us and the people we met. The parents in my son’s class formed a Yahoo group and shared a Google calendar. Several of them had blogs, which amounted to a dossier of birth stories and backstories (and hey, I’m nosy). My husband shared local photos on Instagram; when he tweeted that he was sick, a neighbor offered to pick up medicine. One September night, as we were settling in at Cobble Hill Cinemas, an acquaintance e-mailed—he’d seen us check in on Foursquare and wanted to let us know he was a few blocks away, having a birthday dinner. Did we want to join them for drinks?
And yes, I probably look at my phone too much—I plead guilty to the new modern crime. But I have no regrets. A month ago, Brian (whom we now ping on weekend mornings for on-the-fly playdates) lost his daughter’s “lovey” at the playground, the bunny she couldn’t sleep without. He texted us, so I ran over to watch his kids. But he had no luck searching, and neither did my husband, even after a run on his bicycle up Fifth Avenue. So I posted to Park Slope Parents, and sure enough, the small-town miracle happened: Some helpful stranger had noticed the toy tucked away, propped high on a ledge, and found a way to tell us.