Over the (Digital) Backyard Fence


Fans of the 1990’s sitcom “Home Improvement” will remember the backyard fence across which Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor would often commiserate with the always half-hidden neighbor, Wilson. (Side Note: Taylor was played by actor Tim Allen who attended Western Michigan University five years after I did. He and I both spent time learning our broadcasting chops at the campus radio station, WIDR. He and I, proud to say, have both been honored with the WMU Distinguished Alumni Award.)

For this blog, the operative words in the paragraph above are “backyard fence.” In Allen’s sitcom, it became such a key prop it was almost a character itself. In American society, the backyard fence is close to iconic in its history and symbolism.  It has been romanticized in countless books, plays and movies, not to mention TV shows.  For generations neighbors have gossiped, shared secrets, told lies, arranged affairs, built friendships, spread rumors, made plans, traded recipes, boasted about their kids, complained about someone else’s kids, criticized government and generally chit-chatted over the backyard fence.

The phenomenon was even included in a wide-ranging societal study done by the University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Communications some years ago.  The study examined communication patterns across several neighborhoods and communities in Los Angeles. Quoted in the Los Angeles Downtown News publication, principal investigator Sandra J. Ball-Rokeach said, “Our findings show that good old-fashioned interpersonal connections, the chat over the backyard fence or on the apartment stoop, are the fastest and strongest path to a sense of community.”

In other words, grassroots efforts, whether aimed at political issues, humanitarian causes, or other collective concerns, the study seems to say, really do work. Along with the impact of community organizations to stimulate local discussions and local media coverage, Ball-Rokeach said “People talking to people about their neighborhoods…are the major players that affect a sense and reality of belonging.”

Until the cyber/digital revolution consumed most of our lives, backyard fences were just that…fences. All kinds of fences. Wooden, chain-link, wrought iron, vinyl, aluminum and on and on. Today, the backyard fence is right in front of you, on that computer screen staring back at you. Call them interactive digital community bulletin boards. Across the country, several versions are available depending on where you live. Just like real backyard fences.

We have just moved to a new community and were warmly welcomed, online, by nextdoor.com, which describes itself as “the private social network for you, your neighbors and your community. It’s the easiest way for you and your neighbors to talk online and make all of your lives better in the real world.” Yep, it’s a digital backyard fence. And unlike fences you must buy, this one is free.

After signing up for the San Francisco-based service and providing verification you actually live in the neighborhood your local nextdoor.com platform is located, the messages start flowing. Better said, the neighborhood digital backyard fence chit-chat begins.  Some neighbors offer to give away stuff and post things similar to “Box of toys appropriate for kids 5 and under. In three boxes on driveway. Yours for the taking.”  Some complain about reckless drivers in the neighborhood, along the lines of “A young man driving way too fast nearly struck us crossing the street. Here is the license number. Does anyone know who this is?”  Some ask advice like “Any recommendations for removing crab grass?” Some ask for assistance…“Hi neighbors, we are thinking about installing a full swing-set and play area in our  yard.  Does anyone have one and may we take a look?”…and get friendly responses, “Sure, stop by our house this weekend.” Some have services to offer such as “Do you need a handy man? I’ m retired with time on my hands.”  Some are organizers. “Anyone interested in starting a bridge club? I’ll put it together.” Some have stuff to sell, i.e. Washer/Dryer combo, like new, good shape. Best offer”  And some take the backyard fence motif to heart,  Lets gather in my backyard  tomorrow for a meet and greet. We are all new neighbors, let’s get to know one another.” These aren’t exact quotes, but they pretty much represent the conversations.

All the messages are accompanied by the names of their authors and where in the neighborhoods they live. It is a convenient way for folks to get to know one another….over the digital backyard fence. The Annenburg Study concluded that such uses of the internet “extends parts of the community to the rest of the world.” It could be said it extends parts of the community to itself, as well, reinforcing that sense of belonging. Given the current divisive political climate in this country, it may be just what the doctor ordered.


Published by J. Paul Hickey

Author, Bass Player, Retired National Correspondent for ABC News - 32 years with the network - Retired in 2012. Narrates Audiobooks. Volunteer at Fort Sumter National Park. Holder of two university Honorary Doctorate Degrees, Distinguished Eagle Scout, former SCUBA diver.

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