Viewpoints

Nextdoor seemed like a great place to meet neighbors. Now I’m not so sure

Photo illustration by Joe Johnston
Photo illustration by Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

In my Nextdoor feed, there’s a post about some kittens that need a home, a notice about a car break-in and a happy note about “all the fun surrounding our neighborhood” during trick-or-treating. There’s also an angry rant about an election issue. Want to guess which one has more than 100 comments?

If you’ve spent any time on Nextdoor, you know that a small number of angry users can poison the entire feed. If you’ve used Nextdoor through a previous election cycle, you know that those voices tend to reach a fever pitch in the weeks before a vote. The problem isn’t just the shouting. It’s that much of the noise contains false information that gets amplified when readers react without first vetting the facts.

Posts that trigger anger or fear tend to draw the most reactions, and the mere reach of an emotion-driven post gives it the feel of credibility (“this is all over my feed, so it must be legit”). Anyone who dares to question it or introduce facts at this point gets shut down by the mob. For every poster or commenter, there are many more onlookers who read the posts and internalize their messages. In doing so, they are using Nextdoor as a source of news — but the “reporters” aren’t trained journalists; they’re our angry, shouty, often-ill-informed neighbors.

Nextdoor launched in in the U.S. in 2011, but it wasn’t on my radar until 2013. Just before I heard about it, I’d interviewed a doctoral student who wrote his dissertation on how communities rebound after disasters. He had studied New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, borough by borough, to see which areas recovered fastest. The most resilient boroughs had one common trait: The neighbors all knew each other before the disaster.

My family and I had just moved into a new home, and we didn’t know many of our new neighbors. Nextdoor seemed like the perfect solution, so I created an account, set up our Nextdoor neighborhood, and sent postcard invitations to dozens of nearby homes. It didn’t take me long to regret it.

A small number of frequent posters spewed hate about everything from puppies to politics. When I dared request that neighbors treat each other with respect, I was accused of trying to shut down free speech.

A third of my neighbors are now on Nextdoor, though many have abandoned it. I’m still a moderator, but I rarely log in anymore. It’s too hostile over there. To be fair, the platform has its moments. One of my favorites: I was making soup one night when my immersion blender broke. I asked Nextdoor if anyone had a blender I could borrow. Within 20 minutes, so many neighbors had offered up their blenders that I could have spent the next week on a pureering spree.

I’ve seen my neighbors use Nextdoor to find lost pets, to give away used furniture, to make landscaper recommendations and even just to share kind thoughts. More often, however — especially in the lead-up to this election — I’ve seen it used to spread false information about a contentious bikeway project and turn growth-related fears into full-blown frenzies.

The spread of misinformation through social networks is a phenomenon I’ve been studying on the national level for the past two years, so it’s been fascinating and horrifying to watch case studies unfold in my own neighborhood. What’s happening on Nextdoor is a hyperlocal version of what’s happening all over social media. Our social feeds are skewed to serve us inflammatory information, because that’s what human readers feel compelled to share. Objective information doesn’t stand a chance in this environment, and every topic feels polarized.

The good news is that we can reclaim control of our information channels. Nextdoor lets us report posts that violate their community guidelines, and we can mute individual neighbors whose posts we don’t want to see. We can curate an online experience that’s all kittens and rainbows, and we can stop letting Nextdoor and other social platforms inform us about our city and the world.

If that doesn’t work, we can log out of Nextdoor entirely and watch it drift into obsolescence. We can step outside, buy a newspaper, and call the Community Development Department or Public Works with our questions about local housing or transportation issues. Then we can knock on our neighbors’ doors and get to know them face to face. Even the shouty ones are friendlier that way.

Kim Lisagor Bisheff is a journalist and author who teaches journalism at Cal Poly.

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