When Mysti Berry moved to Ocean View from the Sunset two years ago, she wanted to find a way to become more involved in her new neighborhood. During the 10 years she and her husband had lived in the Sunset they did not meet very many neighbors.
At the same time, a friend in Oakland told Berry about Nextdoor, a social network for neighbors. Berry’s friend said that her neighbors had worked together using Nextdoor to solve a break-in problem in a local apartment complex.
After nearly two years on Nextdoor, Berry says her experience has not always lived up to her expectations. “It’s different than I expected,” Berry says. “My friend in Oakland said there was a lot more working together.”
Still, Berry can see the strength of the service; it just isn’t always used properly in her opinion.
“It’s not a replacement (for community), but a handy tool for people who are moving too fast and doing too much,” Berry says.
Nextdoor was founded in 2010 with the intention of helping to ”build happier, safer places to call home,” according to the website.
Fifty-six thousand neighborhoods across the country use the site. The Ocean View group has 171 members, which is about 4 percent of the neighborhood’s entire population. Nextdoor is used for everything from classified ads to reporting crimes in the area.
In an attempt to foster community, Nextdoor gives users less privacy than other social media users get. The service asks for a new user’s address as part of the sign-up process and, although users can list just their street, many users use their entire addresses.
A map shows all of the users’ households in the neighborhood in green. Non-users are red.
According to Danielle Styskal, a communications associate at Nextdoor, users appreciate features like this because “neighbors can tell where each other live, and it helps them know who they are talking to online.”
Berry, a 54-year-old software technical writer, was uncomfortable with showing her address and now lists only her street.
In February, a Nextdoor member was having trouble with a neighbor. The two eventually got into a 45-minute verbal confrontation and the newcomer wrote about the experience on Nextdoor.
“…through it all, what I found the most amazing and disappointing thing was that not one person in the street that was seeing this, that came out, peered through their curtain, that I had spoken to, smiled to, exchanged pleasantries etc had anything comforting or good to say or came as a witness when I called the police to put down the report to this person who has had multiple reports filed on him,” they wrote.
The Nextdoor community responded. On the following Sunday a group of Nextdoor members came out to support the new neighbor.
Peter Vaernet, a Nextdoor user who was there, said that eight Nextdoor members showed up. The group looked at a video of the fight and filed a police report, which had not been done properly before.
Vaernet later walked the street and spoke to neighbors about the issue. The neighbors who had been so unresponsive earlier started talking, according to Vaernet.
“So where they didn’t talk normally because maybe they couldn’t see each other, suddenly they did talk and they could all agree ‘Wow this is crazy,’” Vaernet says. “It’s good that people are talking about the crimes that are going on because it will make people look outside,” Vaernet says.
That’s exactly the role Nextdoor wants to play.
“We use Facebook to connect with friends and family worldwide, Twitter to follow trends and interests, and LinkedIn to manage our professional lives, but before Nextdoor, we didn’t have something to connect us to the people right outside our front doors – to our neighbors,” Styskal wrote in an email.
In keeping with its attempts to localize the Internet much recruiting is done offline, often in person or via postcard.
“The biggest challenge we face is that people don’t already know their neighbors—which is why we had to develop offline invitation mechanisms, like postcards, for neighbors to invite each other,” Styskal wrote.
Despite the attempts to foster community with less anonymity, users and bloggers across the country have reported cases of racial profiling on the site.
According to Nextdoor’s guidelines, “it’s inappropriate to report suspicious activity in a way that focuses primarily on the appearance of those involved rather than their actions.” Group moderators, called Leads, enforce Nextdoor’s policies in each group.
About a year ago, a new member joined the Ocean View group and wrote a post littered with racial undertones, according to Berry. The user talked about “lazy” people and “thugs” hanging around on the streets.
Berry posted a public response saying that she was uncomfortable with the newcomer’s post. A heated conversation ensued and the user left the site, presumably kicked off by a lead. The conversation is no longer available online.
Berry says she regrets the way she handled the situation. If she were to approach the same thing again, she would send a private message instead of a public one.
Conversations on Nextdoor’s Ocean View group can sometimes promote neighborhood cooperation and other times spark disagreements.
In January, one user posted an article from The Examiner about two robberies in the Outer Mission. “Please be careful out there,” she concluded.
The post sparked a conversation about the merits of including a racial description in news briefs. Both crime briefs described the suspects as “men who all appeared to be in their 20s.”
“Since it is politically Incorrect to ethnically labeler (sic) them, How am I suppose to know who to watch out for?? Or should I just run as fast as I can when a group of young men come in my direction?” another user responded.
“Knowing the race of the person doesn’t seem like its really going to narrow down the field of people you run into enough to identify the criminal,” a third user added.
The conversation was eventually concluded calmly.
Conversations like this draw attention to the user-run nature of the site. As someone who has used the Internet “in some form” since 1988, Berry thinks part of the problem has been translating conversations that might have traditionally happened face-to-face onto the Internet.
“When there are so many of us from so many different backgrounds it’s difficult when we can’t see each other,” Berry says. “The Internet is challenging because there’s no context.”
Peter Vaernet, another Nextdoor member who has used the site for one year, feels that the leads do a good job of regulating the group.
“It seems they catch stuff. Sometimes two people get into it with each other and it gets personal. Then (the leads) sort of monitor it and remove it,” Vaernet said.
Two leads, one from Ocean View and another from the Ingleside group, each said they had only needed to remove or censor users from their groups once. According to Skysal, only one quarter of one percent of all messages on Nextdoor have been flagged as abusive.
In the end, Berry still considers Nextdoor just a tool for building community.
“You have to show up in person,” she says.