In the real world, good fences make good neighbors, but in the virtual world, there are no fences, no boundaries, no consequences.
So perhaps it should not come as a surprise that the hyper-local social media site Nextdoor, which prides itself on neighborliness, has devolved into a backyard political bloodbath.
Nextdoor started as a platform for selling bed springs, old bikes and waterlogged surfboards. People asked for recommendations on housekeepers, plumbers and babysitters. But during political season it has become an ugly partisan shouting match.
In Laguna Beach, some City Council candidates have actually feared for their safety. Verbal assaults are common. People are not just rude, they are vicious.
“It is scary because you can get a couple of lunatics,” said Allison Mathews, who is running for the first time. “It’s nasty, rotten kinds of things. It’s gotten nastier and nastier.”
Other Laguna candidates have reported the same lack of civility.
“I’ve gotten totally assaulted,” said Lorene Laguna, another new candidate. “It can be so vile.”
Candidate Judie Mancuso, who has political experience at the state level, said she has been surprised by the meanness.
“It’s a lynch mob,” she said. “It’s off the rails. Something’s gotta give. This should not be allowed.”
Nextdoor does have clear rules but it is largely self-regulated. In other words, it takes someone to flag a post or submit a complaint.
Regarding political guidelines, people are not supposed to outright endorse individual candidates, but they do.
It’s obvious that the process does not keep up with the anger. And yet political hatred runs counter to Nextdoor’s idealistic vision.
“Our mission is to provide a trusted platform where neighbors work together to build stronger, safer, happier communities, all over the world,” according to its website. “We want all neighbors to feel welcome, safe, and respected when using Nextdoor.”
In reality, it’s neighbor against neighbor — fences be damned.
Some candidates are learning to deal with the negativity in order to maintain control over their campaign positions.
“Although it’s been extremely mean-spirited at times, it’s raw, and I love it,” said Peter Blake, another first-time candidate. “It’s unscripted. People give you all kinds of (stuff). When people go low, I go lower.”
Generally speaking, the new challengers are the ones who are taking the time to post on Nextdoor.
Candidate Sue Kempf, a planning commissioner, purposely avoids the site.
“I just don’t go on there,” she said. “I find it much more productive to have conversations with people either in person or if they send me an email.”
Kempf has seen some negative statements about her but she refuses to respond.
“To be honest, some of these things are so patently false that I just don’t want to engage with people like that. I don’t find it useful,” she said. “I don’t want to live in a fact-free world.”
Most of the candidates who are posting on Nextdoor would rather not engage either, but they feel it’s a necessary evil. In the end, they want to properly communicate their message, and when they see misstatements, they can’t help but try to correct the record.
“If you do nothing, then it just sits out there and people can read it and go, well, is it true? Is it not true? What’s going on?” Mancuso said. “You can call them out on their (stuff). And that’s what I did.”
Laguna would rather not spend her time on Nextdoor.
“I think that it has value but certainly it has become a toxic environment,” she said. “I just can’t stand social media to be honest with you. It’s a complete time bandit. I need to be out pressing the flesh and not sitting on the computer all day.”
Mathews enjoyed the early part of the campaign on Nextdoor but lately she’s had to choose her words carefully for fear of some kind of backlash.
“There’s some decent, wonderful people on Nextdoor who have given me some brilliant ideas and who have really engaged and who have been optimistic,” Mathews said. “And then there are those who don’t want anything to change and are terrified.”
Blake, who originally hails from the East Coast, has treated Nextdoor like a bit of a boxing match.
“They feel like they can just come out swinging,” he said. “They’re behind that screen and they’re hitting send, and they think they can say and do whatever they please without really thinking that there’s another human being on the other side of that.
“It’s that screen. The screen removes the humanity from the conversation.”
Whoever wins in the Laguna Beach City Council election in November, there will one inescapable loser: civil debate.
Very few people involved in the Nextdoor political posts are genuinely trying to learn about the candidates. They’ve made up their minds. They have agendas, and if you disagree, you are the enemy.
At this point, they only throw hand grenades back and forth over their virtual fences.
And when the smoke clears, Laguna will be worse because of it.