meWhen presenting its financial results earlier this month for the fourth quarter of 2021, community social networking platform Nextdoor reiterated its core message: “Our goal is to create a kinder world where every living individual is dependable.”
It is a noble goal that certainly receives attention. The network was launched in America in 2011 and has been enjoying steady growth. But, as digital media consultant Martin Ashplant says: “The Covid pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have charged that. Suddenly, the hyper-local view of the world that Nextdoor provided is vital for many.”
According to the company, the network is now used in more than a quarter of a million neighborhoods in 11 countries around the world. However, platform users do not always develop kindness in a way that self-help experts might recommend.
By way of illustration, last week at local group Nextdoor in West London, a contributor started a post this way: “If a black man knocked on my door last night…” I went on to describe a scam in which a man asked for £10 to get into hospital to get his key back. He allegedly got locked out of his wife, who he said was a nurse.
The contributor said she gave the man the money and it was never returned. Responses were largely supportive, although many indicated that the man’s skin color was used by the label more as a means of characterization than a cause for suspicion. In turn, these people were denounced as “snowflakes” and heralded as “political insanity”.
The original poster was offended by suggesting she was guilty of racism, but after reading the post and the responses, she didn’t want to be a black male walking her neighborhood, let alone seek any kind of community help.
It was a small case but not typical of how the platform works, which indicates why it has come under criticism. There is a range of opinions that see Nextdoor as a weapon flick. These opponents suggest that rather than creating societal cohesion, it fosters hostility and division.
In America, Nextdoor has been accused of racial profiling and creating an atmosphere of “paranoid hysteria,” as one mayor described it. In a country where black men have been shot for entering white neighborhoods, such accusations should not be dismissed.
Nextdoor responded to criticism with more detailed guidelines and an increase in the number of volunteer moderators. But neither development invalidated the belief in some circles that the platform was routinely used as a means of pitting whites and the rich against the blacks and the poor.
In fact, most of the posts on the platform have little or nothing to do with issues of crime or race. Lost cats, piano lessons, or trusted sanitation cleaners are the usual fare. It’s the place to go when you want to give away household items, and during Covid restrictions, it has been used frequently to identify vulnerable neighbors and organize help.
“It can be a really positive thing,” says Rita Begum, a Labor Party adviser in Maida Valley. “People have come together during the pandemic using it, which is good for charities and community organizations.” In many ways, it’s just a digital version of those handwritten cards that used to be displayed in post offices and corner store windows to advertise yoga and yoga classes. There is something so pleasant and reassuring, like the way a wit does in the village, about asking the neighbors what to do with a broken kettle or organizing a place to stay for a Ukrainian refugee.
But the tone turns into one of the urban battles when, as is often the case, the topic turns to crime. By reading the notices, it’s not hard to get the impression that there’s a malicious army out there, working day and night to breach your security and ram your belongings.
“It can give a bad impression of an area,” says Begum. “People should be more aware of what they are posting. Nobody seems to be interfering. Nextdoor should be more active in enforcing the rules.”
Two weeks ago, while looking at the app on my phone during a break from work, I encountered a video, captured by a security camera at the front door, of a man breaking into a nearby house. You can see him up close, as if he was staring at the camera on purpose. He wears a face mask, gloves, sports jacket, polo jacket and beanie. He looks through the letter box and then turns to scan the street before removing a flat object – perhaps a credit card – from his jacket pocket. It takes about 15 seconds to open the door.
It was more like in a TV drama when a thief mysteriously fiddles with a keyhole and the next moment he enters it. I always thought that was a technical license, assuming that the task of picking or moving a modern lock was a much longer work. I was wrong.
“Do you know this guy?” asks the poster, understandably upset about being burgled. You can’t see much of his face, but you can see that he’s black. There are no explicit racial comments, but one poster writes: “His whole ugly face is special to me. He seems capable of anything.”
How do you manage it? Another poster asks if it is worth contacting a local newspaper. Of course, local newspapers were the medium by which people were alerted to crimes in their areas. Despite the conspicuous, and at times harsh, reporting, it was and continues to be constrained by journalistic guidelines, defamation law, and subjugation. In a way, social networks like Nextdoor have replaced the role of local newspapers, delivering news almost as it happens, with instant, unedited commentary.
As Richard Osley, award-winning editor Camden New Journalhe says: “There is a problem with the fact that uploads to the app don’t seem to be bound by any fear of libel risk. We weren’t able to work in the same way. You see serious accusations made without the same harshness you’d expect from a team of journalists.”
Another post recently on my group claimed to be collecting a legal challenge to my local GP practice. People, mostly with their own nightmarish stories of neglect and incompetence, piled in and named certain doctors. The post was eventually removed, but not before some serious allegations surfaced.
As Osley argues, if people seek their news from what is essentially street gossip and “no one is doing the prerequisites to investigate and hold institutions to account – something Nextdoor can’t really do – we will all be losers in the end”.
This may be true, but Nextdoor is clearly also an enabler. Being careful is to be ahead, and the strength of user numbers in the neighborhood may help prevent a burglary victim from feeling isolated, especially since there is little chance that the police will be interested.
But at the same time, the weight of the voices involved can be misleading and distorting, as each person adds unverifiable anecdotes and contributes to what can sometimes seem like a civil buzz.
In another case in my group, a video poster placed a potential thief who came to his door but failed to get through. He notes that had he broken into, he would have encountered two mastiffs. Other posters address the topic. “Kill! Go mastiff!” One comment, many echoing sentiments. When a lonely poster says the man may have mental health issues, she is quickly told: “Mental health or not, I threw him doing this outside my house and I’m going to smash him to pieces.”
Much of this, no doubt, unleashes anxiety, a safety valve for the anxiety of city life. But even so, it’s hard to fit into the company’s narrative of cultivating kindness. In fact, you could argue that Nextdoor cultivates the very things it purports to challenge: hatred, bigotry, fear, and suspicion. After all, no one has ever been blown away by arousing that special set of feelings. Which brings us to the end of Nextdoor’s operation. Created by a group of Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs backed by venture capital, Nextdoor was valued last year at $4.3 billion. The platform’s revenue comes from advertising – security systems are prominently featured, along with local services.
In the last quarter announcement that came with a “nice world” message, revenue totaled $59 million, up nearly 50% year over year, and the public offering generated a cash balance of more than $700 million. The phrase “surveillance capitalism” takes on another meaning here, as revenue is generated not so much from digital companies spying on people as from people spying on each other.
Nextdoor has been confirmed as a player with ambitions to rival the largest of social media’s decision last year from Facebook (now Meta) to launch live Facebook, which replicates many of Nextdoor’s features. For Nextdoor to beat Meta, Ashplant says, it will need to continue to grow users in a post-pandemic world and show that it can turn a profit. To do so, he says, she would have to “demonstrate that she can effectively control disinformation and maintain trust.”
As societies evolve over time, they can also be rapidly affected by new social conditions. Like Facebook and Twitter, Nextdoor is inherently annoying. These platforms become part of contemporary life by displacing previous systems, habits, and habits.
In recent years in this country, reflecting the more advanced trends in America, there has been a growing separation of rich and poor, a process whose logical conclusion is economic segregation, with the wealthy isolated and securely protected from a supposedly dangerous world. .
In America Nextdoor has been claimed to be the most active in neighborhoods that are not severely affected by crime, but where there is an exaggerated fear. The company assures that the network is used in all communities. Whatever the truth, a healthy society’s resilience against crime can easily be exploited in hostility to outsiders, foreigners, minorities, the poor, and the mentally ill.
In turn, this hostility can lead to the creation of a hypothetical gated community that leads, sooner or later, to the real thing. It’s a course that may prove profitable to the wealthy and well-protected, and to those who serve them, but it is unlikely to make a kinder world.