I don’t know many of my neighbors, but I can tell you a lot about what’s happening on their doorsteps.
Here’s a sampling of some recent events, viewed through the grainy footage of other people’s security cameras: An enterprising squirrel lay waste to a pumpkin; a man in a red plaid shirt shamelessly raked leaves into his neighbor’s driveway; and, around my bedtime one recent night, a teenager rang someone’s doorbell and ran off.
I watched all this happen in 30-second loops, from video uploaded to Neighbors, the app for Ring, a brand of motion-detection cameras and video doorbells owned by Amazon. You don’t need to own a Ring to join Neighbors. Just enter your address and there you have it, a map of a five-mile radius of your home, littered with tags like “suspicious,” “crime,” and “unknown visitor.” Click on one and you get a fish-eye view from the porch, garage or second-floor window posted by someone who felt like sharing.
The footage, posted anonymously, is invariably accompanied by a headline and caption. “Ring and run” read the one of a teenager in a hoodie bounding down the front steps of a house after ringing the doorbell. “Hey kid, you’re trespassing and it’s 10 p.m. Isn’t it past your bedtime?”
Comments by other Neighbors users guessed the age of the doorbell ringer, and whether 10 p.m. really is bedtime. Some reminisced about their own adolescent antics, to the dismay of the angry homeowner who posted the footage. Cue the inevitable snarky debate about what constitutes bad behavior.
Other apps offer similar services, like Citizen, which is basically a roving crime watch, and Nextdoor, an online forum where you can ask for a plumber recommendation, post a picture of a lost cat or upload a video of a man rattling your car door handle at 3 a.m. Your choice.
All this online hand-wringing comes at a time when we’re less likely to actually know the people who live around us. A 2015 report by City Observatory, a virtual think tank, found that nearly a third of Americans had no interactions with their neighbors, and only about 20 percent reported regularly spending time with them. Forty years ago, those numbers were reversed, with nearly 30 percent of Americans reporting visiting neighbors at least twice a week, and about 20 percent not interacting with their neighbors at all.
Experts point to a few key trends. Americans work longer hours and have longer commutes, so we may never see our neighbors. We also spend more time interacting on social media.
“Because we do so much of our communication on our devices, we may have lost a bit of our skill and our comfort of communicating in person,” said Bella DePaulo, the author of “How We Live Now.”
So instead, we upload videos and then commiserate virtually about porch pirates, potential porch pirates or a delivery man lingering too long on the doorstep. Cameras often catch what’s happening on the sidewalk or on a neighboring property, too. So your neighbors may never say hello, but they can film you taking out the trash, walking the dog, or shamelessly neglecting to scoop the poop, and then share it.
There’s a risk to all the peeping and posting. “If you have a society where everyone knows they’re spying on one another, you could undercut social capital in the neighborhood,” said Jay Van Bavel, the director of the Social Perception and Evaluation Lab at New York University.
I installed some of these apps a few weeks ago, curious to see what my neighborhood looked like from this vantage. Every few hours, my phone rattled with alerts, telling me about attempted car thefts, police chasing suspects and someone needing a bathroom contractor.
Scott Sokol, 34, who lives in Montclair, N.J., with his wife and two young daughters, bought a Ring doorbell over the summer when Amazon was selling them at a discount. Thanks to the video doorbell, he now gets alerts on his phone when the nanny arrives home with the children, making him feel more comfortable leaving the children while he’s at work.
But he finds the Neighbors app baffling. “It’s an odd collection of information,” he said. “Most of the time I get a Neighbors alert, it’s something in a neighboring town or three miles away — somebody’s car door was opened in Cedar Grove — it’s irritating.”
Ring insists it tries to keep Neighbors alerts to a minimum. “Our app is meant to be low frequency, high relevancy,” said Che’von Lewis, a Ring spokeswoman.
Regardless, the apps are popular. As of Wednesday, Nextdoor was the fourth most popular free app in the Apple App Store’s news category, and Citizen ranked sixth. Neighbors ranked 38th in the social networking category. There’s enough material to go around that the Twitter account @bestofnextdoor has gained almost 300,000 followers sharing particularly absurd postings, like one warning neighbors to be wary of teenage trick-or-treaters who may actually be criminals posing as children.
All this data also may paint a skewed picture of the areas where we live. Across the U.S., crime is falling. In 2018, property crime dropped 6.3 percent from the previous year, and almost 28 percent from 2009, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Yet log into Citizen or Neighbors and you might think you were in the middle of a crime wave.
“We need to learn how to be data literate and we’re not,” said Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif., and director of the Media Psychology Research Center, a nonprofit organization. “We need to know what we’re looking at and know what it means.”
We may not be data literate, but our thirst for data seems boundless.
Now, for $2,000 a year, a concerned homeowner can buy a service from a company that will affix a camera to a pole and angle it toward the street to capture pictures of the license plates on every car across two lanes of traffic up to 100 feet away. Two cameras, one positioned at either end of the block, could capture all the cars coming and going down a street. The company, Flock Safety, monitors the video footage. Flock cameras are in 400 cities in 36 states, and half of its customers are civic associations.
The idea behind the camera: If someone steals a bike or breaks into a house, police can review the footage looking for any suspicious vehicles. While Ring has partnered with 405 law enforcement agencies around the country, potentially providing them access to homeowners’ video feeds, Flock alerts authorities if a camera spots a vehicle with a license plate in the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database.
“Is this a surveillance state? We don’t think that it is,” said Garrett Langley, chief executive of Flock Safety.
At some point, you have to wonder how many cameras we actually need, and how much of the footage is worth watching. Robin Guarino, who has lived in her house in West Orange, N.J., for 20 years, doesn’t mind that many of her neighbors installed video doorbells. She sees the benefit — a camera might deter a porch pirate.
But recently a couple moved into a house on the corner and affixed small cameras to the side of their porch, facing out onto the street. That got her attention.
“It’s a little bit creepy,” she said. “What are they going to capture? Nothing goes on in this neighborhood.”