The jerks Nextdoor

Is the social-media site that aims to unite neighbors actually the worst thing to happen to Sacramento communities?

Kimberly Mulligan, who quit reading the posts on Nextdoor’s East Sacramento microsite, calls the social-media platform a “cesspool of over-reaction.”

Kimberly Mulligan, who quit reading the posts on Nextdoor’s East Sacramento microsite, calls the social-media platform a “cesspool of over-reaction.”



From: xx from Land Park

The email subject line jumps out from my inbox and the message that follows reads like a breathless crime bulletin:

We confronted a black man in our backyard this afternoon ….. He climbed back over the fence … Very brazen!!!

The email was sent via Nextdoor, the free San Francisco-based social network aimed at connecting neighbors since its 2011 launch. It's been touted as a way to unite neighbors—a tool to bring us closer together in this hide-behind-your-screen tech era.

Why, then, do so many people hate it?

Many, for example, have accused the site of promoting decidedly un-neighborly behavior—spying, snooping and shaming. And, as Nextdoor's fostered a relationship with local law enforcement, others have voiced concerns that it's become a hotbed of criminal and racial profiling.

Is Nextdoor a useful social networking tool—or is it actually the worst thing that's happened to Sacramento neighborhoods?

That’s the burning question as I stare at my phone in disbelief. While I appreciate a legitimate trespasser warning, there’s something unsettling about the message—particularly that screaming subject line. That makes me uncomfortable. Angry, even.

I wasn’t the only one. While some chimed in with alarm (“How scary!”), others were straight-up pissed.

You can bet if he was white it would be MAN ON A BIKE. … ND is becoming a really unpleasant place. Great for lost dogs, etc. But a lot of nervous Nellies and self-important know it alls.

Over time, the thread unspooled to nearly 75 replies, debating racism and political correctness. Finally, the original poster changed the subject line to “Man jumping fences in Land Park confronted at 4pm”—but not without protest.

If he was Asian I would have said that….omg so much ado about nothing!!! … I thought I was being a good neighbor … nuts!

Good neighbor. It’s the underlying philosophy at the core of the site’s mission. This is, its founders would have you believe, a Mayberry USA for the Facebook crowd.

“We believe that when neighbors start talking, good things happen,” the company’s press kit cheerfully explains.

Or, maybe, when your neighbors start talking, you just find out they’re all a bunch of jerks.

’The social-media equivalent of “driving while black'''

Subject: Suspicious man

From: xx from Tahoe Park

This morning on V and 57th Street, my housemate was walking home from work and noticed a young, slim, Afro-American man walking slowly and tried to get into a conversation with her.

Nextdoor’s social-media model has managed to stir controversy since before the site was even out of beta.

In 2011, shortly before the its launch, The New York Times tech columnist Nick Wingfield worried over Nextdoor’s potential similarity to his neighborhood’s online message board, which had “a number of vocal people on it whose intense suspicions about the presence of strangers in the neighborhood bordered on the paranoid.”

Those fears played out over time. Earlier this year, online news and culture site Fusion published a story titled “Nextdoor, the social network for neighbors, is becoming a home for racial profiling,” in which it chronicled several disturbing incidents, including a thread about a “scary sketchy” black man seen walking down the street in a gentrifying West Oakland neighborhood.

The police, one poster insisted, needed to be called. As it turned out, the man was trying to find his way to a party to which he’d been invited—by another Nextdoor member, ironically.

Nextdoor, concluded writer Pendarvis Harshaw, was “a forum for paranoid racialism—the equivalent of the nosy Neighborhood Watch appointee in a gated community.”

I joined Nextdoor’s Land Park microsite in 2013. The rules of membership are strict. Potential users must verify their address and register with their real name. Once logged in, neighbors are encouraged to interact by posting messages and replies, and by “thanking” other users—the latter the equivalent of a Facebook “like.”

Each neighborhood has its own site. In Sacramento, there are microsites for just about every community, big or small: Land Park and Tahoe Park, Oak Park and Med Center, College Greens and Colonial Heights. Users have the option to intersect with other areas—for example, someone may live in Hollywood Park but also choose to read posts from nearby Curtis Park or Land Park.

The site’s grown exponentially since its 2011 launch and currently covers nearly 75,000 neighborhoods across the United States, with 247 Nextdoor sites in Sacramento proper and more than 1,663 in the overall region.

When I first joined, the site seemed dull, with its myriad recommendations for electricians, gutter cleaners and carpenters. A LinkedIn for the Home Depot set.

On occasion, however, it proved useful. Those screaming police and firetruck sirens? Log on and learn of the car chase before the last siren wail fades from earshot. Dog on the loose? Post a picture on Nextdoor and help locate the owner. Package stolen from the front porch? Upload a screen grab of the alleged thief from your security camera and share it as a warning.

Soon, however, I noticed those other, more troubling conversations: Posts warning of “suspicious-looking” people who, overwhelmingly, were also people of color. Complaints about “garbage diggers”—homeless men and women who traveled the streets, shopping carts in tow. Worried discussions on potential scam artists who knocked on doors looking for odd jobs. Virtual hand-wringing over people who dared to drive their cars slowly down the street—obviously casing out their next burglary. Some messages even include photos of supposed trespassers, scam artists, house casers, etc.

A friend of mine, who shall remain anonymous to protect her social-media sanity, finally deleted the app from her phone in frustration.

“It turns out all my neighbors are racist assholes,” she said.

The site also proved to be too much for Kevin Wehr. The Midtown resident is one of many Sacramento users who quit Nextdoor, upset and angered for the way it often brings out the suspicious, racist, bullying worst in others.

Wehr, an assistant sociology professor at Sacramento State, says he initially joined Nextdoor because he thought it would be a great forum for sharing information and resources. But soon, he says, his outlook on the site turned grim as he skimmed through endless posts complaining of the homeless.

“There are homeless people who live in the neighborhood … and it’s my perspective that they’re people first—people who have a high proportion of problems, mental instabilities,” Wehr says. “[They’re] people who often self-medicate, and understanding this, I have a certain perspective on how folks should be treated with tolerance and respect.”

Most of Wehr’s neighbors didn’t seem to share that perspective.

“People just complained, going on and on—and not in a constructive way,” Wehr says. “It was reactionary and not helpful. I got sick of hearing it.”

And then there were those who made snap judgments about others based on their skin color. Wehr says he watched as his Nextdoor board lit up with messages from neighbors who posted frantically paranoid warnings.

“It was almost like vigilante justice,” he says. “It was bizarre, [with posts saying] ’I see this suspicious-looking person in the park—keep your eyes on them.’”

He couldn’t fathom why so many of his neighbors were so quick-triggered with the keyboard.

“Why were these people suspicious? The person who might be a few feet away might just be another person using the park like you,” Wehr says.

Then again, maybe Nextdoor isn’t that different than other platforms, Wehr adds.

“The worst tendencies of social media is to make people paranoid,” he says. To that end, Nextdoor “became the social-media equivalent of ’driving while black.’”

Wehr finally logged off.

“I was disappointed and found myself thinking less of my neighbors and their potential racism,” he says. “In this case, knowing less about them is better.”

It didn’t take Kimberly Mulligan long to feel the same about some of her neighbors in East Sacramento. The Sacramento native, an assistant professor in biological sciences at Sacramento State, had moved back to town in 2013 after several years of living in San Francisco. That summer, her daughter was born and Mulligan often found herself on Nextdoor. She even used the app to try to find her family’s missing cat.

The cat never made it home, but although Mulligan says some Nextdoor users were helpful as she searched for the kitty, she quickly soured on the overall experience.

“At first Nextdoor was this really cool application—a great utility,” Mulligan says. “And obviously it is that, with posts on what I’d call relevant crime or notices about extra lemons. It has a really cool purpose. But then I started to see really alarming posts.”

Like Wehr, Mulligan says she found frequent posts about potential criminals and homeless people upsetting. Many of her neighbors—at least the ones posting regularly to her microsite, harbored an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.

“It’s appalling. It takes away the humanity,” she says. “Maybe I’m ultrasensitive, but the amount of outrage over someone going through the recycling seems unbalanced.”

It was posts related to the shooting of Trayvon Martin that finally made Mulligan stop reading the messages altogether, citing the “veiled and-not-so-veiled racism” she found as she read through posts on the subject.

Nextdoor, she said, was a cesspool of overreaction.

Ultimately, Mulligan decided to stop reading the messages that flooded her inbox daily.

“There is so much I love about my new neighborhood but getting this window into a larger sampling of the people in our community via this app has given me pause,” she wrote in a farewell post earlier this year.

Now, months later, Mulligan says she has no regrets leaving Nextdoor.

“It’s a platform for people who want to spit fire at each other,” she says. “It’s an amplification of fears that are totally unfounded.”

’There are expectations of privacy'

Subject: Too Many Green Lawns

Aerin Murphy, a lead for Nextdoor’s Tahoe Park microsite, says most users are “well-intentioned”—and not afraid to call out bad behavior.

From: xx from Curtis Park

By now, there is not a single resident of Curtis Park that is not aware that we are in a severe drought. I doubt there is a single resident in this area that has not been made aware of the very strict water restrictions. And yet, there are so many lush, green lawns. Out walking our dog every evening, my girlfriend and I see these lawns, and we see the wasteful sprinklers soaking sidewalks.

Occasionally, controversial Nextdoor posts aren’t about homeless people or crime or race. Sometimes, they’re about elevating the old-fashioned neighborhood busybody into a 21st century tech pest.

Take the drought-shaming. The above Curtis Park message, posted in July, resulted in an angry thread that spanned nearly 150 replies and a Sacramento Bee article.

Some users have even taken to posting photos of suspiciously green lawns and freely flowing sprinklers. Others are more direct, posting pictures of neighbors caught watering on the wrong day.

As a rule, Nextdoor doesn’t exactly condone such tactics. But the site is also largely self-governing, says spokeswoman Kelsey Grady.

“Nextdoor is a democratic platform,” she says on the phone from her San Francisco office.

Each microsite is overseen by neighborhood “leads” responsible for approving members and monitoring content—to a point.

“The role of the lead, the moderator, is very loose,” Grady says. “They can’t control what content goes up or what content goes down.”

Still, leads may remove so-called inappropriate messages and are tasked with reading messages that have been flagged by other members. Such “inappropriate” posts may include bullying, racist language and posting photos of neighbors without their permission.

That said, Grady says only one-quarter of 1 percent of all Nextdoor messages are flagged.

Furthermore, she adds, the company does have “wonderful and comprehensive guidelines” on neighborly behavior. Treat everyone with respect. Refrain from profanity or messages perceived as discriminatory or pro-violence. Share helpful information.

Grady says the company has heard the complaints about criminal racial profiling before and encourages users to “lead with action” when posting related messages.

“Describe the action, describe the location, then describe the [person’s] appearance,” Grady says.

“This is definitely an area we take very seriously,” she adds. “Our mission is to develop and use the power of technology to build stronger, safer neighborhoods.”

Nextdoor is also in the process of building relationships with local law enforcement. In Sacramento—a city Grady calls an “early adopter” of the process—officers regularly post messages and answer questions for users.

Sacramento Police Department spokesman Sgt. Doug Morse says that while there’s no official relationship between Nextdoor and local law enforcement, officers have nonetheless used it to “take community policing into the 21st century and go where people are today, on social media.”

Through Nextdoor, the police department has reached more than 40,000 registered members since 2013, Morse says.

“It [gives] us the ability to disseminate information tailored for any one neighborhood or for every neighborhood in Sacramento, in one single uniform message.”

Currently, more than 100 officers—some assigned to a specific location—read messages, answer questions and post daily to both individual neighborhood boards and the site as a whole.

The result, Morse says, has been enhanced “community-oriented policing” that has lead to valuable crime tips. There was the home burglary, for example, for which a Nextdoor thread eventually provided a suspect description and security-camera footage of the suspect’s vehicle. Then there was the time—twice actually—when a post led to the return of a stolen bike.

But what about those who might be inclined to take a more misguided approach to such community policing?

Morse insists the police respond to even the most paranoid, racist poster with appropriate protocol.

“All incidents and activity reported to the police via Nextdoor, [are] handled the same way as information given to dispatchers,” Morse says. “We handle each call based on its own merit and apply the same fair and impartial policing to every investigation.”

Maybe, but perhaps community policing should come with better training, at least for the board’s leads, says social-media expert Jennifer Grygiel.

“What sort of training have some of them had? Maybe you should have to take a quiz,” says Grygiel, only partially joking.

Nextdoor membership, she adds, is akin to a “lesson in digital citizenship.”

Grygiel, an assistant professor in communications at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, says Nextdoor is “safer” than platforms such as Facebook or Twitter because member posts can only be read by those living within a neighborhood’s boundaries.

Even so, it can still pose a threat of “reputational damage” when users name names or, worse, upload pictures to the site that have been taken without the subject’s permission or, sometimes even, knowledge.

“There are expectations of privacy,” says Grygiel, “Would I want someone hanging out a window and taking photo of me and posting it on Nextdoor?”

It doesn’t really help if such a post or photo was flagged and removed by a lead, she adds. The damage is likely already done.

“Even if there’s a take-down mechanism, [that process] may be too many layers from the original post to be effective,” she says.

Mulligan, the exiled East Sacramento Nextdoor member, says such tactics certainly won’t make a difference if people who use the site feel as though they’re digitally removed from real life.

“They forget that there are real human beings that they’re talking to,” she says. “It’s hostile—a rabbit hole of anger.”

And now you know

Subject: We found our swing!

From: xx from Land Park

The burglar threw it through a window on 12th Ave. They drew a penis on it!

Aerin Murphy loves Nextdoor. As a lead for the Tahoe Park neighborhood, she says she appreciates the efficiency it affords her.

“It’s a nice way to be able to connect with neighbors without necessarily going door-to-door,” she says.

As a lead member, Murphy doesn’t deny that there are the occasional problematic posts—racist, bullying messages. It’s her job to review flagged posts but, she says, those are fewer than one might think.

“Of the flagged messages I read, I only delete about 3 to 5 percent of them,” she says. “I’ll delete something that is blatantly racist or attacking another neighbor.”

And sometimes, she adds, such incidents have had positive outcomes—however unintentional.

“I’ve seen both of those situations come up and for the most part it’s provided a great foundation for discussion,” Murphy says.

There have been messages, she adds, where the poster only provides a suspicious person’s race as a description.

“That’s prompted neighbors to say, ’What makes it racist?’”

Such discussions resulted in the formation of a Tahoe Park-based book group whose members read books on racial profiling and discuss how it impacts their community.

For the most part, she says, people are well-intentioned.

“One of the drawbacks of having connected community is that people want to get information out really fast, and that causes them to add on information—and leave out information—that could better explain what they’re trying to say.”

That’s not to say there’s not racism, she adds, but “our neighbors are not shy” to point out bad behavior.

For the most part, she feels Nextdoor has given her a sense of kinship—even with people she’s never met face-to-face.

“I know that might sound kind of silly, but you see the same people online all the time,” she says. “It’s just a nice way to keep up.”

I think about Murphy’s words later as I scroll through a fresh batch of messages. Two months ago, my husband and I packed up all our belongings in Land Park and moved two miles east to Oak Park. Within a week, I’d received a postcard from Nextdoor, inviting me to join the neighborhood’s microsite.

I hesitated. I’d already met a few of my neighbors. They seemed so nice. So normal. So not crazy and racist. Did I want to spoil that notion with a few moves of the cursor?

Curiosity won out, however. Soon, I was reading through messages about lost cats, free sofas and electrical repairs. There was a post from a guy convinced he’d seen a drone playing Peeping Tom into the skylight of his second-floor bedroom (“Sounds like someone is casing the neighborhood,” another member replied). There was a thread about a lost duck (“clearly a pet”) and complaints of a brazen thief who was snatching plants off of front porches.

At first, I felt heartened. Maybe moving to a more ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood meant I’d left those incendiary posts behind.

Not really. Here—perhaps fewer in number but maybe only because the neighborhood is geographically smaller—are the same skittish posts about black men and Latina women, “scruffy” homeless men and “obvious” junkies.

Even so, a few voices of reason manage to rise above the tech chaos.

“Based on what you’ve posted, there doesn’t really seem to be any reason for suspicion,” one neighbor wrote in response to one particular rant. “There’s a lot of racial profiling and other race based fears on Nextdoor that are pretty alarming and without justification. Let’s try and refocus on tangible issues that are supported by more than ’black man slowly walking down the street.’ Just my two cents.”

Dozens of replies followed—some in agreement, some defensive and angry—and it hit me. Many of my neighbors (wherever and whenever) have probably always been racist, fear-mongering jerks.

At least with Nextdoor, I now know who to avoid.