The hyperlocal social-media platform highlights small grievances—and proves that neighbors have more in common than they think.Ian Bogost July/August 2018 Issue
Here are some of the things I heard about in my neighborhood over the past year: A thunderstorm downed a tree, blocking a central road; a shadowy agent called “the night clipper” arose, surreptitiously cutting overhanging bushes while unsuspecting property owners slept; several dogs and cats were lost, found, or “on the loose,” whatever that means for a cat; a federal-grand-jury-summons telephone scam struck; someone sought belly-dancing classes, an apparent alternative to Pilates; and, innumerable times, people deposited bags of dog poop into lawn-clipping and recycling canisters at the curb. All of this news came courtesy of the social-media service Nextdoor. On its website and app, people can post recommendations, updates, and warnings about their building, block, or neighborhood.
Anyone who has subscribed to a neighborhood email listserv—or used the internet—can guess what might go wrong. Social networks connect people, but many of those connections degrade into vitriol. If Twitter is where you fight with strangers, and Facebook is where you vie with friends, then Nextdoor is where you get annoyed with neighbors—for sending “urgent alerts,” pushed late at night to mobile phones, about questionable emergencies; for trying to sell a tattered massage table or used carpet shampooer at near-retail price; for issuing nasty reprisals on matters large and small. But it can also foster connections among neighbors and help counter the social isolation brought about by technology.
Nextdoor works a lot like Facebook, but instead of a “Like” button, it offers a “Thank” button, encouraging a kind of neighborly grace. More important, in order to join, you have to prove that you live where you say you do (by entering a code mailed to your home address, for example). Which means the community you enter is not imagined or diasporic, comprising people from the same school, profession, or interest group—it’s physical. You can “mute” neighbors on Nextdoor to hide their posts, but you can’t make them move away. Like it or not, these are the people in your neighborhood—the people that you meet each day, as the old Sesame Street song goes. Not just the postman and the barber, but also the aspiring belly dancer, the night clipper, the cat looser, and all the rest.
Thanks to its popularity, the service offers a unique window into daily life around the country. Nextdoor’s virtual communities—which cover more than 180,000 U.S. neighborhoods, including more than 90 percent of those in the 25 largest cities—are becoming representative of the country’s actual populations.
What do Nextdoor users talk about? On April 18, 2018, to pick a random day, the nation mourned former First Lady Barbara Bush, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Donald Trump to discuss North Korea, and the world reacted to a deadly accident aboard a Southwest Airlines flight. But on Nextdoor, the overwhelming majority of Americans were focused on the impacts of late-season snowstorms: stuck cars, downed power lines, and especially snowplows. Grout and kittens were on mountain-time minds, and Oregonians seemed to be enduring a spate of lost wallets and duck encounters. In Florida and Colorado, problems with telecom services dominated the conversation.
This is pretty normal. Steve Wymer, Nextdoor’s vice president of policy, told me that the same topics arise again and again, modulated by region and neighborhood type. Service requests and recommendations constitute 30 percent of chatter, and discussions of real estate make up another 20 percent. About 10 percent of Nextdoor conversations relate to crime and safety, Wymer said. (Suspicious persons come up a lot, often amounting to sightings of people of color in predominantly white areas. Nextdoor has attempted to discourage posts that use appearance as a proxy for criminality by prompting users to add more detail and blocking some posts that mention race.) Public agencies such as police and emergency-management departments also post updates to their constituencies. Noise complaints are another popular subject, according to Wymer—fireworks seem to raise particular ire—as are classifieds, missing pets, and gardening tips.
Judging by the conversations on Nextdoor, it would seem that Americans are concerned first about the safety and security of their property, family, and pets, and then with their property’s, family’s, and pets’ upkeep and improvement. Though the platform breeds its share of conflict, it is notable—in contrast to other social networks—for the commonality it reveals, even in these times of unprecedented political division. No one, Democrat or Republican, wants a neighborhood strewed with dog poop.
Jenn Takahashi operates a Twitter account and Facebook page called Best of Nextdoor. Because Nextdoor posts are private to local communities, Takahashi relies on users to submit funny or weird things they see in neighborhood groups across the country. (When her Twitter following recently surpassed that of Nextdoor’s corporate account, the company’s head of community congratulated her, while also gently wondering whether she would blur the neighborhood names in her posted screenshots.) Less than a year after launching the accounts as a loving gag, Takahashi has built what might amount to the most complete contemporary picture of day-to-day American behavior, a kind of crowdsourced Kinsey report on municipal perversity.
Takahashi echoes Wymer on noise complaints—talk of fireworks or gunshots (they are rarely actual gunshots) is common, she says. Sometimes these complaints have dramatic consequences. In Seattle, a post about a dog’s bad reaction to some kind of cannon that was sounded during Seahawks football games led to an online dispute, and a neighborhood meeting at a library to talk it out erupted into a brawl. “Seattle is like the Florida of Nextdoor,” Takahashi told me, referring to the Sunshine State’s tendency to surface all manner of improbable events. Los Angeles is another source of good material: She’s received a handful of submissions about unrest in parts of the city where YouTube stars live, as fans mob the streets trying to catch a glimpse.
Best of Nextdoor reveals a charming cluelessness that pervades America’s communities. People in cities can’t seem to tell the difference between a possum and a house cat, for example. In Alabama, someone tried to sell an unopened box of Hot Pockets. Near St. Louis, one resident asked why the neighborhood of WingHaven is called “Swinghaven.” In a suburb of San Diego, someone posted an image of a found sex toy and—not comprehending the purpose of the device—worried that it “looks valuable.” But most of Takahashi’s collection catalogs more-mundane patterns, like the poop-in-the-trash-bin crisis that seems to plague all Americans. Takahashi has amassed countless specimens, as it were, from run-of-the-mill lamentations to complex home-surveillance-camera-facilitated stakeouts conducted to find and shame the offending dog walker.
In our conversation, Steve Wymer brought up Robert Putnam’s 2000 book, Bowling Alone, about the decline of in-person social discourse in America and its consequences for civic life. Putnam criticized the technological individualism encouraged by television and the internet, which had already shown a capacity to promote selfishness. Wymer argued that Nextdoor cuts against that trend: The company boasts dramatic examples of new collaborations the service helped enable—the neighbor who donated an organ to someone 10 doors down, whom she wouldn’t have known were it not for Nextdoor, and the person stranded on a roof by Hurricane Harvey who was able to summon a rescue boat via the service.
But usually life is less dramatic than that. In the most-common Best of Nextdoor submissions, neighbors worry about a weird truck driving by slowly, early in the morning. Ever vigilant, other users respond that they have already reported the suspicious vehicle to police, as law-enforcement representatives on the service encourage. Typically, the offending vehicle turns out to be the newspaper-delivery person, plodding through the suburbs to bring print news to the residents who still read it that way. Eventually, someone explains how newspaper delivery works, and order is restored.
I’ve seen a version of this post in my own neighborhood. Someone writes: “Concerns about white man with turban on bicycle.” Almost instantly, responses arrive: “Oh, that’s Floyd, he’s harmless,” and “Yeah, he’s been around forever.” Some neighbors theorize that he might be a wizard. It’s a small thing, and maybe not one to be proud of—but the neighbors’ concerns get assuaged, and Floyd escapes torment. That’s a post worth clicking “Thank” on.
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