One recent afternoon, while tapping on my laptop in the solitude of my house, I saw an email: “Urgent!!!! Cat trapped in car trunk!!!!”
The email was one of several dramatic dispatches I had come to expect from the Nextdoor app, the hyperlocal social media network that I mostly follow through push notifications sent to my inbox. In a matter of months after joining Nextdoor, my sweet, tree-lined community in East Dallas had been reframed as a hellscape of random violence, shivering Pomeranians, and Amazon porch piracy.
I’d chosen the neighborhood, in part, for its friendly vibe. In the soft unwinding hours near dusk, I strolled along the sidewalk and waved at people walking their dogs or riding their bikes. Now, though, Nextdoor was showing me a midnight version of the area, where no UPS package was safe. I’d become familiar with the Blair Witch-style image captures taken by Nest and Ring cameras, which increased the creepiness of any crime tenfold, so that a woman in a baggy sweatshirt boosting a ficus tree looked like an evil ghost from Victorian England. There were much graver crimes, too: carjackings, home break-ins, someone stabbed (stabbed!). I’d long known this part of town came with risks, but had I underestimated the danger? Or was Nextdoor overstating it?
Nobody seemed to be having a worse time of things than the animals, who were apparently in constant peril. A puppy in a box near the highway. A coyote on the loose. A German shepherd mistreated by its owner. I found the pet notifications tough to negotiate, because I was torn between thinking everyone had too much time on their hands and feeling called to do something. Some posts were like a hand reaching through the laptop to push me into action. Take, for instance: “Urgent!!!! Cat trapped in car trunk!!!!”
I opened Nextdoor to figure out what was happening. I’ve had two cats over the years, and both have been life-saving, so I was firmly opposed to any animal being trapped in a trunk, although I was a bit confused as to how a passerby might determine a cat was stuck in there. Was the cat meowing that loudly? Was the cat texting someone?
The post was vague on details but frantic in its tone. Both 911 and animal control had been called, and neither would help. What to do next? Break the car windows? Would that be vandalism? “The cat hasn’t got much longer,” the good Samaritan informed us, and I felt the seizing drama of a ticking time bomb. “Smash those windows!” I wanted to shout into my phone. “Save that kitty cat!”
One of the strange disjunctions of following Nextdoor through push notifications was that the post had been up for a while before I discovered it. This one had taken place the previous day, and I could scroll through the comments to see the narrative unfold, like one of those true-crime serials I can’t stop watching on Netflix. A locksmith was called. The fire department summoned. YouTube tutorials recommended. A barrage of exclamation points and all caps. Our neighborhood was ON THIS!! One commenter went to the scene with soft food and a humane trap. A later comment clarified the cat was now stuck in the suspension of the car, and I grew suspicious. Was it possible this cat was not trapped—but hiding?
The internet is an unreliable narrator. The doom and disaster of the world washes up to our fingertips, and what are we going to do about that? Turn off push notifications? Smash all the windows? It will be up to us, citizens of the most crazily connected and disconnected society ever, to figure out what a good community looks like. I have not found the balance between knowing and ignoring, watching and getting involved, saving the world and saving my own sanity.
I can tell you that on a random street in East Dallas, a fuzzy gray kitten eventually crawled out of the suspension and was scooped up into the hands of a stranger. One of the last posts in the thread was a picture of the little creature eating a can of wet food.
Update: tiny gray kitten, now looking for a forever home.