The Nextdoor generation
Explore the strange new world of neighborhood-oriented social media
Despite the political rants and mediocre food pics, people just can't seem to quit social media. Founded in 2008, Nextdoor.com, an online community for neighborhoods, is like a hyper-local Facebook-meets-Craigslist website: lost dog alerts, items for sale, warnings about neighborhood mischief, calls for handyman recommendations, and a few “What's with the cops on so-and-so a corner?” posts.
In order to join, and access a neighborhood's posts, newcomers must verify their home address (usually via a postcard that has carries a confirmation code). Everyone is required to use their real names. Posters can limit their views to fellow neighbors, or opt for a post to be visible to surrounding 'hoods.
According to Shannon Toliver, a communications coordinator with Nextdoor, the website is the world's largest social network for neighborhoods, boasting 250,000 neighborhoods globally. Toliver said there are currently 550 neighborhoods listed in the greater Reno area, “with 19 public agencies in Nevada using [the platform] to convey critical, targeted information to residents, including the City of Reno and Douglas County.”
As Reno grows, so has the activity on Nextdoor—and the content can tell us a lot about the kind of city Reno is today.
When I first joined two years ago, the posts were largely—and annoyingly—about escape artist dogs. But since then, as more residents have joined and engaged with other communities, some common themes have arisen—for better and for worse. (Too many people still need to fix their fences.) It's a powerful tool for grassroots organization and public education, but it's also littered with sarcastic, me-against-the-world missives to bad drivers.
After analyzing months of posts from neighborhoods across the city, here's what stood out to me.
Nextdoor has become an accessible information bridge between residents and local politicians, and in Reno, has become a mobilization tool—in part due to some locals with relentless information-gathering skills.
Typically, the onus has been on residents to find out about things like city planning meetings or new, perhaps obscure, ordinances. Now, anyone can post this information in one spot so that it pops up in everyone's Nextdoor feed. Perhaps as a result, some local politicians are using the site to interact with their constituents.
Last August, Roxbury resident Laura Dyer noticed a much higher real estate tax bill—one in excess of the current three percent cap. After contacting county offices to find out the reason for the increase, she learned that the city had contracted a third-party company to fly drones over Reno. The drones were looking for additions and modifications that added to a homes' value—and bills.
So she sounded the alarm on Nextdoor.
“I definitely didn't expect the large outpouring of responses regarding my posting on Nextdoor, and it was quite heartening to see others had an interest in the subject and wanted to engage in the conversation about it,” she said. “Several people did private message me saying they had contacted [local public offices].”
After Dyer and others learned that the drone contract complied with local statutes, the next concern was that the new bills were not itemized—so residents didn't know what they were paying for. According to Dyer, the county said itemization wasn't written into the software—and they couldn't afford it.
“The county … balked at letting us know what they are adding to our bills,” Dyer said. “It's like they want to do it silently so we don't know.”
Using Nextdoor to spread awareness ended up being a smart move; Dyer says the County Commissioner and the Assessor's office got involved and began working directly with Washoe County Treasurer Tammi Davis to get additional taxes itemized for transparency.
In November, one Northgate resident was surprised to find they had an exceedingly high water pressure reading, which can damage pipes. After posting about it on Nextdoor, he found that he wasn't alone—and that it was likely the result of ongoing construction. The post helped him crowdsource knowledge for a solution while also making other residents aware of the threat.
In general, Reno residents tend to be most active with housing issues and correlating concerns like overcrowded schools, the homeless population and traffic. (Just last month, neighbors organized on Nextdoor to successfully block a new development in Verdi.)
On the public servant side, Angela Fuss, Planning Manager for the City of Reno, said it's not new for elected officials to get information via social media, and she knows that Nextdoor has, for some, become part of their toolbox. She added that while Nextdoor can be a unique source of info, it's important to remember that it comes with all the weaknesses of social media.
“I've been in the planning business for a long time, and I know that's how a lot of residents get their information. … On the downside, sometimes that information is inaccurate,” she said.
Nextdoor posts give the impression that Reno residents maintain a sense of awe and respect over consistent urban wildlife sightings—a consistent reminder that despite the city's growth, we're still sharing the land.
Somersett—which appears to generate the most wildlife sighting posts—was built around a historical mule deer migration route; the animals still use it despite the area's rapid development. For more dangerous wildlife—bears have been spotted by Boomtown, and bobcats like backyards in Mogul—posters offer tips and warnings alike. (Stop chucking organic scraps in the yard, and watch your small dogs if you fear a coyote is nearby.)
The Nevada Department of Wildlife sees it as a useful tool for protecting the wildlife—and the residents.
“When it comes to animals like coyotes, they are extremely adaptable and able to survive in these urban environments … but there are also many dangers that come with living near humans,” said Jessica Wolff, urban wildlife coordinator with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. “There are some things people can do to help protect wildlife via Nextdoor. Notifying us when there is an increase in posts on a particular subject is very helpful. As an agency, we don't have access to what neighborhoods are talking about, so simply posting something to Nextdoor does not notify the department. Making sure all neighbors are on the same page when it comes to how to interact with these animals helps protect not only the people, but the animals as well.”
According to the Reno and Sparks Chamber of Commerce, 75 percent of the area is made up of small businesses, and more than 80 percent of the organization's new members last year fell into that category.
Classic Rock Cafe is one of them—and it has seen some challenges lately.
The family-owned business opened in the Ridgeview Plaza shopping mall after being denied from six prior locations. That's because big chains—like Starbucks—often enforce a no-compete clause that limits some businesses from opening within a certain geographical boundary around their stores.
“We applied to [several] because of Starbucks and other chain stores,” said Benjamin Murphy, the cafe's manager (and son of the owners). “The alternative was to open in some tucked-away corner and be forced to close anyway due to lack of foot traffic.”
After a family member got sick and medical bills mounted, their business was in danger. Then, a loyal customer posted a rallying cry on Nextdoor, urging others to check out the cafe.
“We've definitely seen an increase in new customers and retention, and have heard from many of these customers that they came because of the Nextdoor post,” Murphy said. “It really started picking up.”
Anne Silver, CEO of the Reno and Sparks Chamber of Commerce, confirmed that small business viability is a problem.
“We have experienced strong growth in the small business sector over the past two years,” she wrote in a recent email. “Unfortunately, we have also seen many small businesses close for various reasons: location, rent increases, road construction—particularly in our midtown corridor—and retirement. The ‘big box' stores—Costco, Walmart, large supermarket chains, drugstore chains, KOHL's, Office Depot, franchise food operators and others—still dominate our landscape and make it harder for small businesses to compete.”
Nextdoor has also been a boon to local charities, largely for animal welfare causes, veteran programs and food drives.
Get off my lawn
A new technology has taken advantage of Nextdoor, and residents seem to be all for it: the doorbell cam.
One night last December, an Old Northwest couple was in their garage when they heard two men discussing—and possibly plotting over—the truck parked in the couple's driveway. The next day, the couple installed a video doorbell—and warned other residents to look for suspicious people that may be casing vehicles in the neighborhood.
Last week, a Canyon Pines resident installed outside cameras and an alarm after discovering a human's bare footprints in the snow leading up to her house. Commenters chimed in with their theories, one suggesting the prints could have belonged to a kidnapping victim running away, while another said it must be a prank courtesy of some teenagers.
Perhaps it's the advertising campaigns companies like Ring have launched on Nextdoor, or maybe it's symptomatic of a city that's getting more crowded by the month—but the technology could turn residents into busy bodies faster than it may keep us safe. While many posts show good intentions, others highlight how easy it is to get wrapped up in fear over things that were likely happening before the cameras. We just couldn't see them.
Earlier this month, Sierra Highland resident Hector Anguiano posted a clip from his video doorbell, titled “Be careful. People are crazy,” that showed a reckless driver sideswiping a garbage can as it drove down a residential street—uncomfortably close to a man out walking his dog.
The post cascaded into everything from goodwill commentary (“maybe he was just having a bad day”) to junior detective work. (“It was indeed a Dodge, but it was actually a Sebring from around 2007. Excellent eye though.”) Another poster thought the car matched a recent post from Nevada Highway Patrol. (It didn't.)
Travis Warren, Reno Police Department's public information officer, confirmed that RPD has seen an increase in evidence to support cases coming from video doorbell and surveillance camera footage, especially in cases where the immediate suspect description is not available.
Warren said sites like Nextdoor do help others share information and inform the community what to be on the lookout for, but to also remember that community outsiders do make visits.
“You may have family members of those in the community who are visiting for the first time, or someone is meeting a neighbor to discuss retirement plans, or a representative from a legitimate business is there,” he said. “It's important to remember that normal people are doing regular, everyday things from time to time.”
He advised that in cases where someone looks unfamiliar, best practice is to verify: contact RPD and ask if they've received reports of suspicious vehicles or speak with neighbors first to see if they've noticed something
Anguiana says that in the eight years he's lived in Reno, he hasn't seen a spike in suspicious activity, but did say he installed the video doorbell after several instances of interference to his property. While he doesn't feel that the cameras themselves will deter crime, he said “Sharing information about neighborhood safety is a great idea.”
Behind the curtain
Improving safety or helping small businesses on Nextdoor may prove to be effective over time, but it also opens the door for other issues.
A year ago, a Glenwood Estates resident published a post, warning of a “suspicious black truck” with two people “who do not belong in the neighborhood”— with no actual description of the riders or why they were determined to not be from the area. When the poster was asked to clarify, angry comments followed.
Media across the country has reported on instances where these fine lines can cause large problems, from San Francisco's controversial capture of a “porch pirate” by way of Nextdoor doorbell video, to false accusations that damaged a local restaurant's reputation in Asheville, North Carolina.
One source of the problem is that Nextdoor may be growing out of its terms and conditions. The site prides itself on being an a resident-run website. One resident per neighborhood acts as the “lead” for their geographical domain. That person decides what's appropriate , what isn't and can basically curate content.
Like Facebook, anyone can report another user on Nextdoor, resulting in permanent removal from the site. Increasingly, Reno users are complaining that a post has mysteriously disappeared (both stand-alone posts and responses in a thread). And since it's on a case-by-case basis that's reviewed after the lead takes action, there are no clear safeguards for equal treatment (a problem that platforms like Facebook and Twitter still publicly wrestle with).
Per the site's terms and conditions, “Neighborhood Leads can report content, review and vote to remove reported content, or close discussions that were started in their neighborhood. … Neighborhood Leads do not have the power to limit a member's ability to post or to restrict their access to Nextdoor. Only Nextdoor staff can take those actions.” (Nextdoor also advises residents to “Not post concerns about moderation in the main newsfeed.”)
As the site grows—both in membership and its ever-expanding corporate partnerships and marketing programs—it's not unreasonable to wonder whether Nextdoor-employed moderators will become overwhelmed, and lean too heavily on neighborhood leads to make the call for them.
Regardless of what Reno's presence on Nextdoor continues to become, it's prudent to remember that social media channels are built around people, and that means it will have two characteristics: the beautiful display of generous, curious and unique qualities, and the rapid deterioration of common sense and humility. Post wisely.