The Cure for Pandemic Isolation Is Low-Stakes Neighborhood Drama

Your local Facebook group is more than a way to score half a bag of cat litter

Recently I nipped my online shopping habit in the bud, and here’s my secret: Instead of buying new stuff, I post the stuff I no longer need on my local Buy Nothing Facebook page. Somehow, it scratches the same itch for small-scale change — and watching the tote bags full of old duvet covers and too-small sweaters get picked up off my porch is far more satisfying than waiting for something new to arrive in the mail.

There are currently thousands of Buy Nothing groups around the world, some on Facebook, others in person or on different email lists, and fairly strict rules have evolved over time: Everything must be gifted. No trades are permitted. Any item can be posted, though some will really set a community aflutter. (My friend Emily, who lives in Kansas City, told me that on her Buy Nothing group a member caused a stir when they offered up two used sex toys that they noted were “dishwasher-sanitized.”)

There are plenty of misty-eyed odes to Buy Nothing and its noble missions of the gift economy and getting to know your neighbors. I agree, wholeheartedly. But what this group has really really provided for me is something even better in pandemic times: the low-level social conflict that truly binds communities together.

My group recently erupted into controversy over trash bags full of clothing one member claimed another had not been authorized to give away. Watching the drama unfold — and chiming in myself, and then debriefing off-line with a local friend — was the most normal I’ve felt in weeks.

“Gossip is what makes human society as we know it possible,” Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist, told The Atlantic. In his research, Dunbar had found that about two-thirds of all human conversation is about social activities — analyzing interactions and relationships, recounting anecdotes and goings-on.

In our socially distanced lives, we miss what social scientists call our “weak ties”: people we might stop and chat with, but wouldn’t have over for dinner. As Amanda Mull writes in The Atlantic, “Peripheral connections tether us to the world at large; without them, people sink into the compounding sameness of closed networks.” Office gossip isn’t the same when it’s only online. Infrequent, masked interactions with our favorite clerks and baristas just don’t provide the juice they used to. Enter: your local social media group or email list.

High-stakes conflict has ruled our lives for too long now. There’s nothing fun about arguing whether or not people should wear masks. But it is sort of entertaining to watch neighbors squabble over whether the person giving away 50 masks should divide them up into 10-mask lots to spread the wealth. Watching my fellow Buy Nothing members grumble over items that get snapped up too quickly, noticing who seems to ask for every listing, and navigating pick-ups has provided me with the low-stakes drama I’m missing in my current, isolated life.

If that sounds petty, that’s the point. We crave this stuff, and it can be a real balm. As Gaby Del Valle writes in GEN, “zeroing in on meaningless drama is a way of, however briefly, letting myself worry about something other than the endless catastrophe we’ve all been forced to endure.”

A good way to find that drama for yourself: Check to see if you have a local Buy Nothing group. Join it, and offer something or ask for something. Read the comments. Tell friends about it, and then gossip about it.

No access to a group? Find a neighborhood email list. Check the comments of your local blog. Read this wonderful Twitter thread about the behind-the-scenes drama at Kohl’s. Join the subreddit Hobby Drama for deep background on big conflicts in communities like writers of fan fiction and needlework enthusiasts.

Soon enough, we’re all going to be having a lot more conversations with the peripheral folks, and frankly, I’m out of practice. Neighborhood groups aren’t just a way to clean out your basement and get a free grill. They’re a low-stakes way to step back into the social realm — and get some good stories to share when you do meet up with people you haven’t seen in a year.

Annaliese Griffin is a writer and editor who most recently led the Quartz Daily Obsession, an award-winning newsletter. She lives in Vermont with her family.

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