“Hey,” the person I don’t know said, “You’re my number neighbor.”
I glanced at the number atop the text. Sure enough, it was identical to mine except that the last digit was one number lower.
“It appears so,” I answered after a few moments of hesitation.
The return came swiftly. “What’s up?”
Every now and then, the internet surprises us by revealing new nooks and crannies in the normally dull room of predictable human behavior. One minute, people are trying to tell jokes or railing on politicians. The next, they are dumping buckets of cold water on their heads, stuffing dangerous levels of cinnamon into their mouths or eating Tide capsules.
This one doesn’t rise to that level, but the irony is hard to miss. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that only 31 percent of American adults know their neighbors, a figure that drops to just 15 percent for people in the 18-29 age range who live in urban areas.
And yet people think it’s fun to reach out to complete strangers, hoping for a shallow friendship based on randomly assigned digits.
It’s part of what I call a bubble existence. Face-to-face conversations take effort and involve emotional risks. People communicate with more than words. Their facial expressions, body language, even pauses in their speech, tell us things we have to interpret. When you encounter people in person, they see your face, which allows them to recognize you later in a crowd or to expect a level of familiarity that distinguishes you from a stranger.
Random online chats allow us to enter and exit points of contact with little risk, or so we believe.
Virtual encounters “help people project any image they want; they can be whoever and whatever they want to be. Without the ability to receive nonverbal cues, their audiences are none the wiser,” psychologist Liraz Margalit wrote for Psychology Today a few years ago.
The audience also is none the wiser about their emotions, which often are communicated in nonverbal ways. Margalit cites the tragic case of a mother who texted her daughter at college. The daughter told her everything was fine and included emoticons of hearts and smiling faces, then later that night attempted suicide.
In other words, virtual communication allows people to exist in their own bubbles, which can make people in the real world look like dangerously sharp needles. But the bubbles keep us from discovering people as they really are.
Lest you think I’m making too much out of a harmless passing fad, I must point out that the internet is crawling with stories of number-neighbor contacts gone wrong. One woman apparently intercepted a late night text and thought her husband was having an affair. The website bustle.com quotes experts who warn that scammers could be pretending to be a number neighbor to goad you into revealing compromising information. And in perhaps the worst example, a Los Angeles woman received numerous death threats from a number neighbor who subsequently called her about 70 times, according to several news sources.
A lot of number neighbors post screenshots of their encounters on social media, providing another level of unwanted publicity.
People scurry to the alleged safety of anonymous online interaction, only to find it’s more dangerous than actually getting to know a next-door neighbor. That’s another irony of the age.
So, what do you answer when a total stranger asks “What’s up?” in a text? In my case, I sent my number neighbor a terse, but accurate, “Just working.”
“Oooo sooo fun,” was the reply. I haven’t responded yet, and I’m not planning on it. No offense, internet, but I think I’d rather dump ice water on my head.