If you’ve been on Twitter lately, chances are you’re either delighted or horrified by the latest viral trend: finding your number neighbor. You message the phone number next to yours — the last digit higher or lower than your own — then post your experience on social media.
People are really into it. The internet is now littered with scores of listicles and text message screenshots of number-neighbor encounters — people cold-texting strangers to say hi and get retweet-worthy replies that they can show their followers. Somebody faked a Facetime call from Chris Evans; pop sensation Bebe Rexha texted her number neighbor in the kind of celebrity surprise moment that ends up on The Ellen Show.
But with any exchange involving total strangers, things could go south pretty quickly. Who probably won’t take the joke well? Relatives of deceased family members, mothers of 7-year-olds, suspicious domestic partners, former stalking victims and one LA. resident whose anonymous number neighbor responded to her blind text with 70 missed calls and full-blown death threats.
Every online craze comes with the usual caveats about consent and privacy. Nevertheless, your number neighbor surely is less annoying than thrice-a-day robocalls, and less insidious than your #FaceAppChallenge selfies, which currently are training facial recognition algorithms to eventually spy on you? Self-defense and Krav Maga expert Ross Cascio advises against hanging out with number neighbors IRL, warning that “this could all start to go wrong if [they] ask you to meet them somewhere, do something for them, send them pictures, etc.” To Ross I say, welcome to Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, Grindr, The League, Coffee Meets Bagel, OKCupid and the rest of online dating.
We’ve experienced a palpable shift in the way we interact online. A Twitter thread justifiably asked how we all went from “don’t talk to random strangers on the internet to hey i’m your number neighbor,” which got an unexpectedly profound reply: “Years of social starvation leading a generation of techno-insulated introverts to seek connection in low effort, low risk ways.”
There’s something simple, uncomplicated, almost analog about text messaging an unknown number. Are number neighbors pen pals 2.0? Depending on which side of the early aughts you grew up on, it can feel either invasive or nostalgic. Like prank-calling, Chatroulette, chain mail, sending a fax (which the Japanese are still really into) and AIM chatrooms, the notion of number neighbors thrives on serendipity and innocent mischief; the child-like excitement of forming spontaneous shallow friendships.
Thanks to the onslaught of new new media, at any given time you’re talking to people, strangers or otherwise, on at least a dozen different social platforms — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Skype, Gmail, Whatsapp, Venmo. In the cityscape of the internet where conversation awaits at every corner, a single, untethered, anonymous text lighting up your screen can feel like a welcome sigh of relief. The textual intimacy between two people one number apart.
Why is this happening now? Number neighbor is a reemergence of the text-door neighbor trend, which according to Know Your Meme first started in 2008 — more than a decade ago, when we were new to social media, Facebook hadn’t upended democracy and TikTok was just a song by Ke$ha.
A social game like number neighbors in 2019 speaks to an early internet nostalgia in the same way we seek out comfort and familiarity in the era of prestige television by watching endless reruns of Friends and The Office. The Guardian points to the rise of non-event TV as a growing symptom of social isolation: “the popularity of 90s and 00s shows in particular speaks to endemic loneliness among younger generations — a yearning for a more innocent time.”
If you work in media or entertainment, number neighbors is ready for the taking, easily translated into a 360 campaign to get millennials to sign up for more cell phone plans, or a half-baked reality show where number neighbors meet IRL and end up married. But what if we used it for social impact? The odds of you and your number neighbors living in the same area are pretty high. Embedded in the name itself is a sense of place and community. Some people are already taking the peer-to-peer texting format a step further by adding all 9 variations of their phone number to a group chat and forming entire number neighborhoods — a number cul-de-sac. A social game that started out as an antidote to the internet could become a tool for grassroots organizing or even the spreading of social movements.
A “hi i’m your number neighbor” text may be intrusive or just plain annoying, but it’s also coming from an actual person on the other side of the screen who knows as much about you as you do about them. Given all our discourse today about the rapid corrosion of our privacy and free will in the tech age, could it pay, for once, to take an optimistic view of the role our phones can play in finding common ground?