I live in a village in Oxfordshire. Before we moved here, a WhatsApp group was set up to help the community navigate the pandemic. It was, other villagers tell me, a lifeline. But the village WhatsApp is still going. No longer a herald of government diktats, it is now a busy forum with photos of abandoned parcels, a slow cooker in an unknown kitchen, someone’s cat staring blankly at me, and, most worryingly, a snap of the village playground littered with beer cans.
There are village announcements too, stories of the occasional lost dog and items that people don’t want to flog but are happy to give away. I have used it several times to rid myself of the odd chair and once got hold of an emergency plumber when we found ourselves ankle-deep in drain water on a Saturday morning.
When we arrived in the village from the city, I found the WhatsApp group charming and warm; the virtual equivalent of a neighbour calling in. Here, at last, I thought, was community, as my phone pinged all day long with messages. But it soon proved hollow. I scanned the faces of people I saw in the lane, asking myself if I might recognise them from their digital avatars. I pre-empted conversations with people based on messages I had read. I imagined divisions of wealth and class when there were probably none. Asked by my husband to dispose of a table by posting it on the group, I felt overcome by a sudden anxiety, something between social awkwardness and the dread of bothering people; every message you send goes to 180 people after all.
The knowledge of the village WhatsApp seemed to silently change the chats I’d have down the pub or outside church.