In the about page which has followed me around from site to site over the years, I say that because I view cynicism just as a kind of frustrated optimism, I believe the small, everyday courtesies matter. Think about things like thanking a bus driver when you disembark, or holding a door for the person coming up behind you, or even just the exchange of have-a-good-days when you grab your morning latte.
Today, Sameer Vasta introduced me to the idea of “micro-neighborliness”, which goes a bit beyond those small, everyday courtesies but speaks to a similar set of values. Vasta points to a backgrounder by Steve MacDouell which mentally had me vigorously shaking my head in recognition.
MacDouell says that there are three ways in which micro-neighborliness impact our social environment: they subvert our tendencies toward apathy; they have a cumulative influence on the places we inhabit; and they inspire others to consider what their small acts of neighbourliness might be.
When I’ve thought and talked about the “small, everyday courtesies” before, I’ve wondered what would happen if everyone committed to a two-week experiment of keeping up with those gestures. I wondered whether or not, at the end of those two-weeks, we might feel lighter than we are used to feeling. All of those moments where the courtesies are dispensed with or ignored, they might be small but they accumulate. A lot of weight can build up over two weeks. Maybe we’d even feel so much lighter we’d have the strength to tackle some of those larger matters that always seemed too daunting, whether personal, communal, or societal.
MacDouell on apathy: “By shrinking our vision and committing to simple, attainable, ongoing actions, we end up challenging our strong defaults toward indifference.” MacDouell on cumulative influence: “My friend, Tim Soerens, refers to this as the ‘compound interest of local presence’—the idea that the sum of these micro-acts, over time, is far greater than each of them as singular, isolated contributions.” MacDouell on inspiration: “They are inspiring enough that they move us to consider how we might engage our own localities in thoughtful, attainable ways.”
To be sure, MacDouell isn’t talking about holding the door for people. He’s talking about things like “supporting local entrepreneurs and tending to community gardens to hosting bonfire nights and sitting on our front porches” but the argument is the same: there are small actions we can choose to take which are good in themselves and can have a sort of accumulative palliative effect in a buffeting world.
All of which makes me think about the challenges we face in the current state of the web. Just as the built physical environment can limit or inspire the ways in which we interact with other people, so, too, the built virtual environment.
The sorts of things we should be talking about when it comes to our cities are the same things we should be talking about when it comes to the communal spaces of the web. Just as Vasta points to “inclusion, awareness, empathy, and serendipity” when it comes to the movement of people offline, so, too, these should be the values that underpin the movement of people’s thoughts online.