It took two weeks of explosive, transformative national upheaval on race and policing before the head of America’s hyperlocal social network finally took a stand.
“Let me say it unequivocally,” Nextdoor CEO Sarah Friar said in a statement sent to millions of members in 200,000 U.S. neighborhoods Thursday. “Racism has no place on Nextdoor.”
To which critics shot back: Has she been on Nextdoor lately? Or, indeed, ever?
Cases of racial profiling on the service — the classic curtain-twitching posts about “sketchy” Black men — were showcased as early as 2015, by Splinter and Seattle Magazine; both reports focused on supposedly liberal neighborhoods. The New York Times found similar cases in 2016. After Nextdoor unveiled its big fix to Wired a year later (two attributes on top of the race were now required when reporting suspicious incidents), local activists said profiling hadn’t stopped — the company had just lost interest in responding to their concerns.
This has gone on for so long that before we get around to talking solutions, we need to call the problem exactly what it is: systemic racism, digitized and localized down to street level. To be fair, Friar’s statement did use those words, although she didn’t connect it directly with her service. “Systemic racism in our nation will not be solved overnight,” the CEO said. “Neighborhoods, we believe, must be part of the solution.”
But that too rang hollow, given the increasing number of local police departments “partnering” with Nextdoor. Even D.C.‘s PD signed up earlier this year. Across America, it has never been easier to tag the cops on your “suspicious activity” post, with what we should all now know to be potentially lethal consequences.
The police brutality protests of 2020 have thrown Nextdoor’s problem into sharper relief. No one has shown it more succinctly than Jenn Takahashi, who founded the popular meme account @bestofnextdoor. While the company made a brief statement of support for Black Lives Matter last week, its local moderators, known as “Leads,” were banning posts merely for using the #blacklivesmatter hashtag. (“I think the screenshots speak for themselves,” Takahashi says, declining further comment.)
Nextdoor in two screenshots:
This was no isolated incident, as subsequent reporting confirmed. When I put out calls for Nextdoor stories and screenshots over the last week, I heard back from hundreds of users. Many had been censored or dressed down by the neighborhood Lead. Some had been dogpiled with “All Lives Matter” responses. Some had found their accounts suddenly inactive, or placed in “read-only” mode for a variety of infractions. Often the Leads had reported them to Nextdoor, and the company did little diligence in following up on the Lead’s claims.
You may be as surprised as I was to learn how much power, and how little training, these local moderators receive. They have the power to remove posts, and individual comments, at will. They often have no credentials for the role other than the fact of being the first in their neighborhood to sign up for NextDoor, or having posted frequently on the service.
Leads can make anyone they choose a co-lead and vote with them on banning posts, effectively forming — and I still can’t quite believe I’m saying this in 2020 — neighborhood cabals of censorship.
Leads also participate in a National Leads Forum, reinforcing each others’ hardline interpretations of fuzzy guidelines like “be helpful, not hurtful” and “don’t use Nextdoor as a soapbox.” Comments that discuss the existence of white privilege are often removed for being “uncivil, unneighborly and offensive” — while posts that criticize the Black community are often allowed to remain.
Posts discussing cases of casual, everyday racism have also been taken down. Nextdoor user Beth in San Francisco saw a white man loudly pretending to call the cops on Black teenagers who were doing nothing on a MUNI bus. She posted about the disturbing incident on Nextdoor. It was quickly taken down. She posted about the removal of her first post; that was taken down too.
“Apparently the first rule of Nextdoor is that you don’t openly complain about Nextdoor,” says Beth, who was an early beta tester for the San Francisco-based company. (Like many respondents to my request for stories, Beth asked that her last name not be used; the fear of neighborhood reprisal is real.)
“I had very high hopes for the platform and I’ve been stubbornly plugging away, trying to make a positive dent,” Beth says. Currently, she is banned from the service for a month.
‘Abuse and censorship’
Fighting the Leads’ prevailing ideology appears to be an uphill battle. Since Nextdoor made its mild stand for Black Lives Matter, the National Leads Forum has been filled with grumbling. One North Carolina moderator resented the company’s statement, calling its support of the Black Lives Matter movement “by far the most stupid move” the company had ever made, according to Buzzfeed; a like-minded Lead in Orlando called on the company to make a “White Lives Matter” statement.
And behind the scenes, there was a lot of what you might call Leadsplaining. As in this instance sent in by Sara, a moderator in Burbank, who was sick of being the only Lead to vote “do not remove” on a series of comments that simply mentioned racism or white privilege.
So what can Nextdoor do about all of this? Well, if the company is serious in believing that Black Lives Matter, it has to confront its Lead problem.
Through inaction and an apparent misunderstanding of human nature, Nextdoor has created a whole tier of jumped-up local officials who are getting trigger happy with their censorship privileges. It has let them police their own interpretations of what is civil, what is political, what counts as a soapbox. Now it must help them to recognize what systemic racism looks like, and why it is often invisible to those in a position of privilege.
To its credit, Nextdoor has already put some thought into how to nudge paranoid neighbors into checking their own bias. Take this 2018 video on “preventing racial profiling,” intended as a guide for all users. You can practically hear the company gritting its teeth as it politely walks users through some very basic concepts. “If you see something suspicious, say something specific,” the video emphasizes, loudly and slowly enough for grandpa to hear.
A new petition, written by @bestofnextdoor and Atlanta advocacy group Neighbors for More Neighbors, calls on the company to ante up and pay for moderator training that will address racial bias. It also calls for an application process so Leads can be vetted. You know, like influential officials in our public square generally are.
“Leads have the power to control the narrative in their neighborhood — from censoring posts to deciding who else can be a Lead,” the petition reads. “There are no required qualifications to become a Lead and no accountability for individuals who serve as Leads. These murky guidelines have led to abuse and censorship.”
Friar’s statement made a vague gesture at the problem. “We will accelerate our plans to strengthen our community moderation,” the CEO wrote. “This will include improving the resources and support we provide to Neighborhood Leads.” But what if Leads don’t want resources and support? Will training be imposed upon them? The company has no answer as yet.
As part of any new and more precise guidelines, Nextdoor should also consider amending its limits on national news discussion, which is generally banished to a separate section if allowed at all. In 2020 especially, all politics is local, and all local police problems are national. Black Lives Matter protests are ongoing in 50 states. Many neighbors have been affected personally. Of course, they are going to want to talk about it. Of course, censorship doesn’t help.
A service founded in the U.S. in 2011 might have not seen such a climate before now, but that is no reason not to adapt to new circumstances.
Nextdoor might also want to rethink its relationship to police departments, and whether they should be subject to the same guidelines as everyone else. In one screenshot I received, a police detective uses the official Salt Lake City Police Department account to promote a political position — that is, don’t defund the police. (The SLCPD currently receives around a quarter of the city’s total budget.)
To use Twitter terminology, that post was swiftly ratio’d — receiving 62 replies to just 9 likes. A response demolishing the detective’s claim that the police needed that money to deal with the homeless received more community approval. “You kinda walked right into that one,” the local hero told the cop.
And that’s a clue to my final recommendation, one for all NextDoor users who consider themselves allies: Don’t quit. If you see something racist, say something. Keep stubbornly plugging away, trying to make a positive dent. Bring your own Karen energy to bear on the Karens. If they ban you, kick up a fuss about it to NextDoor directly.
I heard from a lot of people like the UK Nextdoor user who said he deactivated his account after a report of a racist attack in his neighborhood was deleted. In other times I might have agreed: Nextdoor is a trash fire, why bother trying to put it out? Why give them the satisfaction or — indirectly — the advertising revenue?
But these are not other times. Right now, street by street, house by house, the battle for America’s future is being fought. People are shaken by clear evidence of police brutality and racial targeting — the vast majority of us, if polls are to be believed, support the protesters — are trying to get others to come along and take a good look at what is right in front of their noses.
When we abandon Nextdoor, we abandon an important arena for that debate. We perpetuate white silence. We allow the Fox News Cinematic Universe, the one in which mostly peaceful protests are full of “riots and looting,” to screen everywhere unchallenged.
You may think you’re fighting that good fight on Twitter or Facebook. You’re not. Filter bubbles have become ever more rigid in the Trump years. We’ve taken to following those we agree with and blocking or muting those we don’t.
But you can’t block your neighbors, especially not when so many of us are stuck at home during a pandemic, so you may as well tackle their racist comments and conspiracy theories head-on.
Here is an opportunity for actual dialogue, and it’s one I saw people take again and again in examples sent in. So long as you’re in it for the long haul and don’t expect to change everyone’s mind overnight, you can move the needle.
I lasted all of two weeks on that site before I had enough of “there is a black person walking down my street right now!” posts.
Oh, see, I just started trolling those people until I shamed them into silence. Took about two years but nobody posts that shit on my Nextdoor anymore.
Love it or hate it, Nextdoor is the next real online battlefield. Here is a war that white allies should be fighting, speaking up as often as possible, rather than leaving their Black neighbors to deal with more instances of systemic racism alone.
Because as Nextdoor has belatedly acknowledged, there’s way too much of that in the world already.