I have always admired the way Palo Altans care about their community and engage with the political process when they have concerns. Lately, however, I am seeing the dark side of citizen involvement. If I had to give it a name, I would call it the Tyranny of the Neighborhood Email List.
I have had my hand slapped several times by the moderator of our neighborhood group, ostensibly for posting items that are "commercial" in nature. I understand this is against the rules of the email list, but I guess I don't understand the point of rules at all. Why do I need a gatekeeper protecting me from what he believes is objectionable content? I'm too old for this. Let me decide what has merit.
I am not a scofflaw; I am someone with good intentions who enjoys sharing ideas and resources with others. I am a good neighbor: I am friendly with all my neighbors and know them by name; I offer help to the elderly ones and pull in the trashcans and newspapers of those who are away. I let neighbors know when I am having a party; I share the fruit, veggies and roses from my bountiful garden; I've invited their children to swim in my pool or watch TV until a parent comes home. I loan my car, a cup of flour, eggs, tools, garage space. I invite them for drinks and help track down their wandering dogs.
I am not a troublemaker.
But, boy do I feel like one. I feel about 10 years old, constantly reprimanded and told what I can and cannot do. The first time he scolded me for supporting the efforts of a neighbor's son to provide recycled water to homeowners' gardens. Too commercial, the moderator barked. I was flummoxed. We have a drought; an entrepreneurial guy has come up with a business to save our landscaping. Yes, he would be charging for it. But isn't this something we'd want to know about?
If not, there is always the delete button. Boom. Offensive missive gone. Adults exercising free choice.
How is this post different from a teenager looking for work mowing lawns or dog sitting? No one in his right mind would discourage that kind of enterprising effort. The rules of my particular group email list seem so arbitrary. I would like to advocate for no rules at all.
Recently, I posted a notice inviting neighbors to an informational meeting for anyone who has considered becoming an Airbnb host. I have gotten so many questions over my five years as a host that I thought it was time to simply do the neighborly thing bring everyone together for a Q&A. The timing coincided with an effort by Airbnb to challenge local hosts to find new hosts in the area.
I thought I'd put it all together in a single meeting. Kind of a Silicon Valley version of a Tupperware party, with wine and appetizers replacing Yuban and Sara Lee. About 25 people came, mostly from Stanford. More would have attended if my notice hadn't been stripped from my neighborhood list. According to the moderator, I am "tone deaf" to the rules and therefore he is now obligated to screen anything I write. Ouch.
For the many homeowners here who find themselves with big houses or unused bedrooms, children gone, and bills to pay, renting a room is a fun, exciting and lucrative option. All of the hand-wringing and horror stories thrown out as deterrents are news to me. My neighbors aren't bothered (yes, I have told them what I'm doing); I haven't had any serial killers; my guests aren't shooting up on the street or hoarding valuable parking spaces. In fact, given where we live, my guests have been a predictably erudite, inspiring group of people.
Most of whom, by the way, walk or take public transportation to Stanford, SRI, Google, Facebook and various start-ups as well as established local companies and law firms. I've had post docs, PhD candidates, doctors, VCs, and Stanford students, alums and parents. They've come from every country in Western Europe, as well as China, Sri Lanka, India and Japan. For me, it's been an inspiring glimpse into the myriad professions and passions of our global community.
Doesn't this seem like something worth publicizing? Instead of immediately deleting the post and not respecting our ability to make up our own minds?
My Airbnb posting is only one of any number of forbidden emails that could go out from neighbors. An artist selling her jewelry at home; a Christmas market; notice about a political fundraiser. These would be no-no's, and yet, I would venture, of interest to many. What about all those couches and end tables people are constantly selling? As one of my friends said, "I'd much rather hear about recycled water than another darn couch."
I personally don't care about the best place for Chinese takeout, or who is the most reliable termite company (not commercial? Hmm). However, I respect the senders' right to post and don't resent them for filling my inbox with what to me is irrelevant. Others find it useful and that's the point. My point is, why isn't there room for all comers?
Perhaps there should be two lists: one for people who want to know everything and one for those who don't.
I realize that having strangers in your home is not for everyone. I get that people may not want to pay for recycled water. But I don't understand the officious, knee-jerk reaction to quash anything that has a commercial element or is potentially income-generating. We have a right to be exposed to everything, and the wherewithal to ignore what doesn't resonate for us.
As I say, the delete button is a powerful tool at everyone's disposal.
Megan McCaslin is a former reporter and video producer and currently works at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.