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Thursday, October 6, 2022

Is media platform Nextdoor a friend in need or a vigilante nightmare? | Social media

Introducing its financial results earlier this month for the fourth quarter of 2021, the community-based social networking platform Nextdoor reiterated its core mission: “Our purpose is to cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighbourhood they can rely on.”

It’s a noble aim that’s certainly gaining attention. The network was launched in America in 2011 and has enjoyed steady growth. But, as digital media consultant Martin Ashplant says: “The Covid pandemic and subsequent lockdowns supercharged that. Suddenly, the hyperlocal view on the world that Nextdoor offered became vital for many.”

According to the company, the network is now used in over a quarter of a million neighbourhoods in 11 countries around the world. Yet users of the platform do not always cultivate kindness in a way self-help experts might recommend.

By way of illustration, last week in my local Nextdoor group in west London, one contributor began a post in this fashion: “Had a black man knock on my door last night…” She went on to describe a scam in which the man asked for £10 to get to a hospital to retrieve a key – he was locked out, he claimed – from his wife whom he said was a nurse.

The contributor said she gave the man the money and it was never returned. The responses were largely supportive, though several pointed out that the man’s skin colour had been used by the poster less as means of description than as a cause of suspicion. In turn, these people were denounced as “snowflakes” and harbingers of “political correctness gone mad”.

The original poster was offended by the suggestion that she was guilty of racism, but after reading the post and the responses, you wouldn’t have wanted to be a black male walking through her neighbourhood, let alone one seeking any kind of community help.

A hand opening the slats in a blind
There is a body of opinion that sees Nextdoor as weaponising curtain-twitching. Photograph: Aramyan/Getty Images/iStockphoto

It was a small but not untypical case of how the platform works, which points to why it has been subject to criticism. There is a body of opinion that sees Nextdoor as weaponising curtain-twitching. Instead of creating community cohesion, these opponents suggest, it fosters animosity and division.

In America, Nextdoor has been accused of racial profiling and creating an atmosphere, as one mayor put it, of “paranoid hysteria”. In a country where black males have been shot for entering white neighbourhoods, such accusations are not to be dismissed.

Nextdoor responded to the criticism with more detailed guidelines and an increased number of volunteer moderators. But neither development has quashed the belief in some circles that the platform is routinely used as a means to pit the white and wealthy against the black and the poor.

In reality, most postings on the platform have little or nothing to do with issues of crime or race. Missing cats, piano teaching or reliable drain-cleaners are the usual fare. It’s the place to go to when you want to give away household items, and during Covid restrictions it was frequently used to identify vulnerable neighbours and organise help.

“It can be really positive,” says Rita Begum, a Labour councillor in Maida Vale. “People came together during the pandemic using it, and it’s good for charity and community organisation.” In many respects, it’s simply a digital version of those handwritten cards that used to be displayed in post office and corner shop windows advertising local handymen and yoga lessons. There is something genteel and reassuring, like the workings of a village fete, about neighbours asking what they should do with a broken kettle or organising a place to stay for a Ukrainian refugee.

But the tone shifts to one of urban embattlement when the subject switches, as it frequently does, to crime. Reading through the notices it’s not hard to gain the impression that there is a malevolent army out there, working day and night to breach your security and walk off with your property.

“It can give a bad impression of an area,” says Begum. “People should be made more aware of what they’re posting. No one ever seems to intervene. Nextdoor should be more active in enforcing the rules.”

Home-made cakes are advertised on Nextdoor
Home-made cakes are advertised on Nextdoor. Photograph: Paul Gapper/Alamy

A couple of weeks ago, while casually looking at the app on my phone during a break from work, I was confronted with video footage, taken by a front-door security camera, of a man breaking into a nearby house. You could see him in close-up, as if he were deliberately staring into the camera. He wears a face mask, gloves, a sports jacket, polo-neck sweater and beanie hat. He looks through the letter box then turns to survey the street before removing a flat object – perhaps a credit card – from his jacket pocket. He takes about 15 seconds to open the door.

It was rather like in a TV drama when a burglar fiddles mysteriously with a keyhole and the next moment he’s in. I’d always thought that was artistic licence, assuming the job of picking or jemmying a modern lock was a far lengthier business. I was wrong.

“Do you know this man?” the poster asks, understandably upset at being burgled. You can’t see much of his face, but you can see he is black. There are no explicit racial comments, but one poster writes: “His whole ugly face is distinctive to me. He looks like he is capable of anything.”

How do you moderate that? Another poster asks if it’s worth contacting a local paper. Of course, local papers used to be the medium through which people were alerted to crimes in their locality. Despite vivid, sometimes lurid, reports, they were and are constrained by journalistic guidelines, libel law and sub judice. In a way, social media networks like Nextdoor have replaced the role of local papers, delivering news almost as it happens, with instantaneous, unedited feedback.

A cat
Missing cats are also advertised on the platform. Photograph: Michael Whitaker/The Observer

As Richard Osley, editor of the award-winning Camden New Journal, says: “There is an issue with the fact that the uploads on the app do not seem to be bound by any fear of libel risk. We could not operate in the same way. You see serious accusations made without the same rigour you’d expect from a team of journalists.”

Another recent post on my group claimed to be gathering a legal challenge to a local GP practice. People piled in, most with their own nightmare stories of neglect and incompetence, naming specific doctors. The post was eventually removed, but not before some grave allegations were made.

As Osley argues, if people seek their news from what is essentially street gossip and “nobody does the basic requirement of investigation and holding institutions to account – something Nextdoor can’t really do – then we will all be losers in the end”.

That may be true, yet in an obvious sense Nextdoor is also an empowering tool. To be forewarned is to be forearmed, and the strength of numbers of neighbourhood users may help prevent a victim of a burglary from feeling isolated, particularly as there is little chance the police will be interested.

But at the same time, the weight of participating voices can be misleading and distorting, as each person adds unverifiable anecdotes and contributes to what can sometimes seem like a vigilante clamour.

In another case on my group, a poster put up a video of a would-be burglar who came to his door but failed to gain access. He notes that had he broken in, he would have been confronted by two mastiffs. Other posters take up the theme. “Kill! Go Mastiffs!” one comments, and many echo the sentiment. When a lone poster says the guy may have mental health problems, she is swiftly told: “Mental health or not, I catch him doing that outside my house and I will smash him to pieces.”

A lot of this, no doubt, is letting off steam, a safety-valve for the angst of city life. But even so, it’s hard to fit it into the corporate narrative of cultivating kindness. Indeed, you could argue that Nextdoor is cultivating the very things it purports to challenge: hatred, bigotry, fear and suspicion. After all, no one ever went broke by stirring up that particular set of emotions. Which brings us to the business end of Nextdoor’s operation. Set up by a group of Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs with venture capital backing, Nextdoor was valued last year at $4.3bn. The platform’s revenue comes from advertising – security systems feature prominently, along with local services.

In that final quarter announcement that came with the “kinder world” message, total revenue was $59m, up almost 50% year-on-year, and a public offering realised a cash balance of over $700m. The phrase “surveillance capitalism” takes on another meaning here, with revenue being generated not as a consequence of digital companies spying on people so much as from people spying on each other.

That Nextdoor is a player with ambitions to rival the largest social media outfits is underlined by last year’s decision from Facebook (now Meta) to launch Facebook Neighbourhoods, which replicates many of Nextdoor’s features. For Nextdoor to triumph over Meta, says Ashplant, it will need to continue growing users in a post-pandemic world and show it can turn a profit. To do this, he says, it will have “to prove it is able to effectively police misinformation and retain trust”.

While communities evolve over time, they can also be rapidly affected by new social conditions. Like Facebook and Twitter, Nextdoor is inherently disruptive. Such platforms become part of contemporary life by displacing previous systems, customs and habits.

In recent years in this country, mirroring more advanced trends in America, there has been a growing separation between the rich and the poor, a process whose logical conclusion is economic segregation, with the wealthy cut off and securely protected from the supposedly dangerous world beyond.

It has been claimed in America that Nextdoor is most active in neighbourhoods not badly afflicted by crime, but in which there is an exaggerated fear of it. The company maintains that the network is used across all communities. Whatever the truth, a healthy community steadfastness against crime is easily parlayed into hostility towards strangers, outsiders, minorities, the poor and the mentally ill.

In turn, that hostility can create a virtual gated community that, sooner or later, leads to the real thing. It’s a cycle that may prove profitable for the well-heeled and well-protected, and for those who service them, but it’s unlikely to make for a kinder world.

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