I’m no stranger to doomscrolling on my outdated iPhone, but lately the Nextdoor app is my least favorite place to do so. I don’t mean to shade the creators of the private social network for neighbors, but I’m concerned with posts that sometimes perpetuate racial profiling and misinformation.
Too often, people use Nextdoor thinking they’re being helpful neighbors by posting about “suspicious” folks in their neighborhood, including children, that are many times people of color. Such posts often lack any context aside from the mere fact that the person is someone they do not know — and I think that’s a dangerous, problematic game to play.
How many more times do we have to see the aftermath of vigilantes injuring or even killing someone because they took matters into their own hands? Ask the mothers of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin how deadly an assumption can be.
There are over 300 neighborhood groups in the Baltimore area on the Nextdoor app, according to the website.
As a neighborhood and community reporter for The Baltimore Banner, one would think the Nextdoor app is a goldmine for finding great stories. And, it used to be helpful. I once found a story on Nextdoor about a father of two boys who built a makeshift launchpad for a spaceship on a vacant parcel of their Reservoir Hill backyard. One son even dressed as an astronaut. The family was invited to see a NASA space mission in Laurel because of that initial story.
Now, no matter how much I scroll, I’m disappointed with many posts.
A few weeks ago, a user posted a video of a child ringing the doorbell of their home in what looked like a game of ding-dong ditch. Another user commented, calling the kid a “hoodie hoodlum.” Someone else warned people about two kids dressed in black passing through a neighborhood, and didn’t include whether they’d done anything other than walk. Such baseless accusations are often called out by other users, resulting in a thread of back-and-forth, divisive sniping not uncommon in the world of social media.
Sydney Yeager, who holds a doctorate in digital anthropology, said online spaces can push people to extremes and groupthink.
“Any disagreement suddenly means you’re the enemy. We are invited to create divisions much more quickly and without thought, because again, there are no consequences for it and nuance requires more work than algorithms often allow,” Yeager said.
As a relatively new homeowner in my neighborhood, I understand wanting to be in the know about where one lives. Who lives around me? What are the popular outings? Is the area pet-friendly? What’s the scene like at night? The list goes on, but no one’s curiosity should be at the expense of someone else’s safety. Nor should it condone spewing misinformation and accusations about someone walking through your neighborhood.
I’m not naïve, and I know not everyone is innocently strolling through a neighborhood, but unless one has concrete proof, I don’t understand why a person should be plastered on the app for simply existing. Catching a crime on camera is different than incriminating someone because of how they look or what they’re wearing.
Also, when did it become okay to post pictures of other people’s children online? I do not have kids, but I can’t imagine children taking a different way home from school only to be targeted because someone is unfamiliar with them. There are definitely people experiencing crimes in their neighborhood, and it’s fair to warn neighbors if that’s the case, but it needs to be done responsibly.
For me, Nextdoor posts have moved away from good uses, such as highlighting people who return wallets to neighbors, sharing useful information about places to dump trash or eat, promoting small businesses and reuniting pet owners with their lost animals.
In 2015, journalist Sam Levin, wrote about Oakland residents using the app to report “suspicious” activity about Black neighbors and families of color, resulting in neighbors creating a group called Neighbors for Racial Justice. At the time, one father refused to let his children play outside unsupervised as long as the profiling and prejudiced posts continued, according to Levin’s reporting.
That same year, Nextdoor partnered with racial justice experts to help make the app more welcoming for all neighbors. I reached out to Nextdoor for an interview, but was told one could not be coordinated.
A Nextdoor spokesperson said the app “is committed to delivering a welcoming platform for all neighbors,” and shared different features aimed at promoting productive conversations. The app has a kindness reminder feature, which flags offensive language and encourages posters to edit before sharing. There’s an anti-racism notification to detect potentially inflammatory content and a process for submitting misinformation, racism, or problematic neighbor profiles to Nextdoor’s Neighborhood Operations team. Nextdoor also said in its 2022 Transparency Report that content flagged as harmful had been reduced to 0.2%.
But creating a nontoxic online community isn’t the sole responsibility of the platform.
“It’s not like people are going online and adopting completely new beliefs or behaviors, said Matt Artz, anthropologist and founder of Azimuth Labs. “They might be performing an aspect of their identity they may have to suppress offline.”
Artz added that it all comes down to the acceptable norms offline and online, but in the absence of platforms taking a stronger stance, “You more or less are left with a scenario in which the community can express itself as it wishes.”
I’m not entirely sure how this gets fully remedied, because humans somehow always find a way to add some level of negativity to online communities. I do plan to keep scrolling and find those posts that make the best use of the app. And hopefully come across some good story ideas, too.
People just need to do better. Be better.