At 2:54 p.m. Pacific time on Sunday, May 31, the Twitter account for Nextdoor, the fast-growing, neighborhood-centric social network for sharing local news or promoting a yard sale, let its almost 40,000 followers know how the company felt about the nationwide anti-racism protests in response to the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
On a black card, the white text read, “Black lives matter. You are not alone. Everyone should feel safe in their neighborhood. Reach out. Listen. Take action.”
A flood of companies issued similar pro-BLM social media posts, and many were mocked for the way the message ran counter to their actions regarding race, but few received a response as fierce as Nextdoor’s. Beyond the digital scorn, NBC News soon reported that Nextdoor users were spreading false rumors about anti-fascist protesters being bused into neighborhoods, fueled by President Trump’s rhetoric. BuzzFeed and The Verge followed up with stories about Nextdoor’s moderators deleting posts about Black Lives Matter and the platform’s lack of tools to help them navigate difficult conversations. The usually buoyant Best of Nextdoor, a comedic Twitter account that shares outlandish posts from Nextdoor’s more than 265,000 global neighborhoods, launched a petition with demands including that moderators undergo bias training and accept a code of conduct.
Before the pandemic, Nextdoor was known for perhaps two things: absurd posts that broke free from the neighborhoods in which they emanated (such as the recent one about a feral peacock roaming around an Oakland, California, community), and its role in racial profiling and over-policing. Soon after the company announced a round of funding in 2015 that valued it at more than $1 billion, an article in Fusion reported that Black residents walking in neighborhoods were often photographed and posted on the site as suspicious, and crime reports often only had one description of the suspect: their race.
Ever since Sarah Friar arrived from Square, in December 2018, to be Nextdoor’s CEO, she has been trying to outrun the platform’s checkered reputation and transform the company into a powerhouse marketing channel for local businesses. The COVID-19 lockdown displayed the potential in Friar’s vision, which has centered around the concept of “kindness.” As shelter-in-place orders started to take effect in mid-March, Nextdoor released a Help Map for neighbors to post lists of what they needed so others could fulfill them. The company encouraged neighbors to share information about which businesses were open—even if just for curbside pickup and delivery—and facilitated the purchases of gift cards to help local establishments while they were shuttered. Nextdoor experienced an 80% month-over-month surge in daily active users.
“I just spent the last year and a half of my life evangelizing why your neighbors are the first line of defense and why you want to have strong ties,” Friar tells me when we chat via Zoom in May, her from the room over the garage of her Marin County home and me in my San Francisco apartment. By the last week of February, before any U.S. cities had locked down, Friar had been preaching readiness during stand-up meetings with employees. “It was clear that this was happening, and that we had to step up to lead.”
Nextdoor has become a digital microcosm of America’s real-world problems. The pandemic has endangered the long-term health of the local businesses and neighborhoods that are Nextdoor’s customers and users, respectively, while Amazon’s market share and dominance in retail only grows and Facebook and Google dominate the information—and advertising—landscape. But perhaps even more crucially, as the pandemic rages on and questions of social inequality persist, it seems unclear whether our future will be one of random acts of generosity, as preached by Friar. Or if panopticism will rule the day, and neighborhoods will become prisons of our own making, powered by a stitched-together surveillance regime of doorbell cameras and accusatory social media posts.
Nextdoor was founded in 2010 by seven friends, most of whom had worked together at Shopping.com. They built the prototype in Lorelei Manor, a coveted micro-neighborhood made up of fewer than 100 homes on just four streets in the Silicon Valley town of Menlo Park and ruled by a homeowner’s association, those bastions of niggling rules and supercilious neighbors. As the founders worked with the locals in their mid-century ranch houses, Prakash Janakiraman, Nextdoor’s chief architect and a cofounder, recalls a Lorelei resident asking, “ ’You’re building this, and you’re building it just for us. What if we love what you build, but you don’t love it as an idea?’ and [one of the cofounders] looked back at him and said, ‘You know what, I’m pretty sure that if you love it, we’re going to love it.'”
The site was an immediate success. Most of the neighborhood was online within a few weeks and it became the model for Nextdoor’s national rollout, though the ideal community would have about 1,500 to 2,000 households, verified for membership by the company or other neighbors to confirm their standing as a local resident.
Unwittingly, the Nextdoor founders had hit upon the promise of what Brown University historian Marc Dunkelman calls the “middle ring” of American relationships. These are not our closest connections (our “inner ring” of family and friends), nor are they the “outer ring” of people we barely know. The middle ring is folks who are “familiar but not intimate, someone with whom, if you bumped into in the street, you’d be able to ask about something more than the weather,” he says.
“Nextdoor is sort of like a gateway drug for community,” says Dunkelman, author of 2014’s The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community, who has consulted with Nextdoor. Someone giving away their kid’s scooter on the platform to someone who lives close by them could show up to find that they’re both wearing a Red Sox cap. “It enables people to find one another, and then it’s up to them to exploit that opportunity.”
When Friar joined the company, she participated in an exercise where employees are asked what neighborhoods mean to them. She wrote: “A safe place to have the most divisive conversations.” This belief that proximity and difficult conversations are the solution to disunity comes from her upbringing. Friar grew up Protestant in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the often violent, multi-decade ethnic-nationalist clash between Protestants and Catholics. Her hometown of Sion Mills, though, was notable for its integrated community, even during the height of the conflict. As a girl, she watched her parents—who were close with their Catholic neighbors—deal with more sectarian members of their extended family. “I always appreciated that my parents would really try to talk them through it,” she tells me. “Not like, ‘Here’s why this religion isn’t bad,’ but they would just constantly give examples like, ‘The next-door neighbors brought us over a cake last week.’ There was kind of a humanity, instead of being labeled.”
Friar wants people to stop cackling at their neighbors’ antics, get off the app, and make connections—social or, preferably, business—in the real world. “We really don’t want people to spend a lot of time online,” she says. “Metrics like ‘time in app’ would be very bad for Nextdoor. If you think about potentially being a public company, that’s a known metric that investors often ask about. But I think it will lead us wrong. . . . The job to be done is not ‘Take me into an app and suck me in and have me read a whole bunch of stuff that’s not related’—and actually take away the time that I could be spending on my family or on community.”
The alternative to the attention-driven “engagement” of a rival like Facebook, which has more than 400 million participants in groups they find “meaningful” (these groups include neighborhoods but also go well beyond them), is utility. “Communication on the [Nextdoor] network, if you look at it on a percentage basis, is highly utilitarian,” says Bill Gurley, the venture capitalist who’s best known for early investments in Uber, Snap, and Stitch Fix and who also was the first to back Nextdoor. “You can see it in the search results. People are looking to solve problems.” (The company hit an all-time high of 125,000 daily searches in May.)
And, he hopes, they are willing to spend money to do it.
This is why Gurley and his fellow board members hired Friar, in 2018. In effect, they asked her to make Nextdoor the sort of small-business juggernaut Friar created in her last job. In 2012, Friar had joined Square as its CFO, when the financial startup had just a few hundred employees and cofounder and CEO Jack Dorsey’s sometimes fantastical ideas for facilitating digital payments. Friar not only steered the company to its 2015 IPO, she also helped launch its highly successful loan product, Square Capital, giving its customer base access to short-term loans that it could repay out of gross receipts processed by Square’s merchant services. Friar, who did stints at Goldman Sachs and Salesforce before Square, became an expert in local business sales and built a reputation as a strong and stable leader. With Dorsey’s time being split with Twitter, she became the rare CFO who was a public face of a company. She was so associated with Square’s success that when Nextdoor announced her appointment, Square’s stock price tumbled 6%.
Friar’s first step toward her goal has been to try to change Nextdoor’s public perception to make it more advertiser friendly. She replaced the company’s mission from “to bring back a sense of community to the neighborhood, one of the most important communities in each of our lives” to what she hoped to see on the platform—Nextdoor helping to “cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighborhood they can rely on.” To assist her, she created a seven-person “Neighborhood Vitality Advisory Board,” consisting of leading academics in the field of psychology as well as the head of the NAACP and a domestic policy expert from the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank.
Soon after, Friar turned precept into practice. In September 2019, Nextdoor introduced Kindness Reminder, which checks to see if a user’s post has words in it that in the past tended to be flagged as abusive, and then asks them to rephrase before it’s uploaded. The goal, says Tatyana Mamut, Nextdoor’s chief product officer, is to make people “renorm their behaviors, understand that these are real people that they’re talking to, right? These aren’t just usernames on the screen.”
Nextdoor built Kindness Reminder based on the work of another academic, Stanford psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt, who studies bias in policy and is the author of Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do. Eberhardt had worked with Nextdoor since 2015, helping the company craft a narrow solution in the wake of its racial-profiling scandal (reports of crimes would need to include more than just race), and is a member of its advisory board. The Kindness Reminder quickly proved to be a success: Nextdoor claims a 30% reduction in reported content. It reinforces Nextdoor’s self-conception as a place for feel-good stories about neighbors finding lost pets and giving away outgrown bicycles (tales every Nextdoor executive is programmed to share).
The pandemic made the turn toward cultivating kindness rather prescient. The Help Map, which debuted on March 18, just as U.S. cities started to lock down, allows Nextdoor users to post the kind of things they’d be willing to do to help a neighbor—buy groceries, pick up prescriptions, just make a phone call to say hello—and lets people in need select what help they want. More than 420,000 users offered help on the tool.
But the Help Map had almost come out very differently—in a way that presaged what was to come during the anti-racism protests. A separate prototype let people who needed things delivered post about what they required. In the end, it didn’t get built, because, as Mamut, the product chief, says, “that seems well-meaning but it could have, you know, not great consequences.” A random person coming up the stairs uninvited could just as quickly arouse suspicion and scrutiny on the app as neighborly appreciation.
What Nextdoor executives seem loath to acknowledge is that Nextdoor’s central appeal is not its practicality but rather that our neighbors are weird, cantankerous, and prone to bicker over minutiae. In my neighborhood, a man posted a photo of a dead hawk, along with the caption “Hawk killed by drone in Dolores Park.” He provided no evidence of the raptor’s cause of death and never commented on the image again. The post, first uploaded in December 2019, was still garnering comments four months later, with neighbors arguing over whether flying drones over a park is legal, demanding a necropsy of the bird, debating whether drones are good or not, discussing San Francisco’s new district attorney, and even someone asking, “What, praytell, is a ‘drone’?”
The company seems alienated from the fun of reading these posts. Cofounder and original CEO Nirav Tolia said that his comms people “hate Best of Nextdoor.” Friar is slightly more sanguine, but she told Bloomberg TV in April 2020, “We’ve been posting a lot of what we call the ‘actual best of Nextdoor’ . . . the teddy bear hunts, the 6-year-old getting his birthday party. . . .”
In the same way that the relentless focus on kindness may blind execs to what is delightful about Nextdoor, it may have prevented them from seeing what is dark and dangerous, too.
Nextdoor has always existed as part of a constellation of new apps and technology that have created a distributed surveillance state. Along with the rise of crime-reporting app Citizen and the growing ubiquity of Ring doorbell cameras constantly recording video of the street, they have served to create a world where any public behavior can be labeled criminal and put online, the quintessential example being a grainy video of a person merely walking down the street labeled as “suspicious person casing cars.”
This isn’t just a case of users bending the platform to their own needs: Nextdoor has trumpeted its ability to serve as an ad-hoc neighborhood watch for years. In 2013, after a new round of funding and a product refresh, the company made this explicit: “Nextdoor funneled more resources into security tools such as urgent alerts pushed to mobile devices and integrations with police and fire departments,” according to a contemporaneous VentureBeat article. “These features help form virtual neighborhood watches, where residents can collectively keep watch, communicate, and mobilize when necessary.”
The platform created a “Forward to Police” button that allowed users to send posts directly to their local police department. CityLab, Bloomberg’s urbanism news site, reported in May 2020 that the company often lavished all-expenses paid trips to its San Francisco headquarters on law enforcement agencies to entice them onto the platform.
Before the Floyd killing, Nextdoor touted its work with local governments as an essential third element to creating a successful community, along with citizens and merchants. For public agencies—often technologically behind but desperate to communicate with their constituents—being able to target messages to specific areas of the city can make a huge difference. Fire departments can post about gas leaks. Transit agencies can post schedule changes. The government of Washington, D.C., for instance, found huge success during its COVID-19 response in being able to microtarget messages about newly opened testing centers to specific hot spots.
But the agency that’s had the most success—and certainly the most visibility on the platform—has always been the police department. “[Government] is a whole segment of a community that gets why they need to be talking to neighbors,” Friar told me in May, before the groundswell of outrage against police violence. “Now, sometimes you have to kind of introduce them to Nextdoor, like why Nextdoor over a different platform, but the fact is that they need to be where their customers are. The police have customers, it turns out.”
When she and I speak again in June amid the George Floyd–inspired protests, Friar admits that racial profiling is “always a little bit of an undercurrent on the platform,” but says she was still taken aback by the angry responses to their BLM post. Before the tweet, Friar had consulted with the internal “Black at Nextdoor” group, and then, at the company’s usual all-hands two days before the tweet, she says she made it clear that Nextdoor had to do more for its Black employees.
Then they turned to their users to see what was happening on the platform. Seeing the discussions there, Friar says, “we felt collectively as an organization that we wanted to put something out there in the world that just said Black Lives Matter. Unequivocal: Black Lives Matter.” But after the post, on the forum the company runs for neighborhood moderators, many expressed anger and frustration at the Black Lives Matter movement, asking why the company wouldn’t post an “All Lives Matter” statement as well, according to BuzzFeed.
Although Nextdoor faced a media firestorm, unlike other companies facing similar scrutiny there was no mass exodus of advertisers. So the company’s response, nearly a week later, was as vague as its initial message. It followed up a few days after that with more specifics, stating that it would get rid of its “Forward to Police” function. “It was kind of just one of those features that was there and honestly I hadn’t really looked at it,” says Friar. “Shame on me, but it’d been there since—I think, 2016, we rolled it out—and I never really thought about what it was doing.” She is also pushing to recruit new neighborhood leads who match the demographic makeup of their communities, rather than just letting the first person who starts a neighborhood be the moderator. Nextdoor promises to make sure that leads can see the community guidelines as they’re deciding whether to delete posts, and it will give its 445,000 neighborhood leads anti-bias training. The company also renamed the site’s Crime and Safety vertical to simply “Safety.”
But Friar still believes that the platform should be a place for people to discuss issues of race, just as hard discussions about the Irish conflict helped her family better understand the other side during the Troubles. So it’s hard to pin her down on what exactly the new guidelines will mean beyond “Do not delete posts about Black Lives Matter.” “If someone is actively putting racist content, that comes straight off,” she says. “And if they are being racist, and it’s a nuanced thing, then members get reported and get removed as well.” What’s the difference between racist content and being racist? “I think it’s ultimately incumbent on all of us . . . at some point you have to find your line. . . . And will it change? Absolutely. It’s a living thing, because humans are living, evolving creatures, and the things we do to each other change and evolve over time.”
Friar is visibly more passionate and upbeat talking about the small businesses on the platform, and it’s clear that creating a way to help local business recover is where her sense of mission lies for the company. “I feel like I’m on a crusade, for God’s sake!” she says. “Imagine, if you walk out after all the shelter in place, and it’s devastation of your High Street or your Main Street. Then that has a ripple effect, because that means the people around you don’t have jobs. It really becomes a self-reinforcing downward spiral.”
The company is not yet profitable, and with the country in a deep recession, Nextdoor will need to fight for every digital advertising dollar. Friar is a small-business owner herself—she’s the cofounder of Ladies Who Launch, a community and lecture series for women entrepreneurs—and she feels a kinship with the companies she sees teetering on the brink. “You can’t help but start to feel deeply, deeply connected to who these people are,” she says. “It’s very brave to say, ‘I’m not going to do the corporate desk job. I’m going to start my own thing.'”
After Nextdoor rolled out the Help Map, it rushed to launch a series of tools for small businesses originally scheduled for the fourth quarter. Starting in June, businesses could now post using the app, with their content appearing in users’ main feeds and Nextdoor giving them access to metrics about how it performs. Friar has visions for business use cases both immediate and far off: a pizza place with extra dough quickly offering a bargain to people within walking distance in the few hours before closing, but also a plumber being alerted by your “smart” faucet to show up at your house before you even know you have a leak.
The appeal for marketers to be able to push ads directly to people they know are real—and know live in a specific location—is obvious. H&R Block, for example, can advertise each of its roughly 70,000 local tax professionals precisely in the neighborhoods they operate. Any product the company launches, Friar says, “will be different from what Facebook or Google or Amazon is going to do, because I just don’t think they are authentically hyperlocal.” Left unsaid is that its rivals’ utilitarianism is cold, not kind.
But as the company rolls out new tools to connect its users to local businesses, connecting people to each other remains an ongoing peril. Is Nextdoor a panopticon or public square? A message board or a marketplace? It may not be able to be all of them: Nextdoor needs the engagement of its most ridiculous—and controversial—posts to get people coming back to the site, but do people want to get a recommendation for a babysitter from the person with a Blue Lives Matter flag when their house honors Black Lives Matter with a yard sign?
Janakiraman, a Nextdoor cofounder, says, “Anything that happens in the real world is going to reflect in our local communities.” At one point, Friar tells me the same thing. They mean it to be hopeful. But more often these days, it’s not.
The comedy next door
The subgenre of Nextdoor “pettiness posts” has become fodder for ridicule.
Best of Nextdoor: “Quality neighborhood drama”
Nextdoor launched in 2011 with the promise that its local sites were private, but as the service grew, posts started to break out into the wider world. Since October 2017, PR professional Jenn Takahashi has posted about 11,000 tweets, sharing the wildest ones.
Sample tweet: “Someone keeps delivering soup to my house with a note that says ‘soup for my perfect little soup boy.’ I appreciate the free food but I don’t like soup. Please stop this.”
Nextdoor the [unaf-filiated] Series: “Real Nextdoor app posts and comments brought to life for your entertainment.”
In February 2020, actress Julie Birke began staging and acting out select posts, distributing them across TikTok, IGTV, and YouTube. Each episode ends with a screenshot of the actual post, so viewers see the source of the dramatic reenactment.
Sample episode: “Bins,” which starts as a complaint about trash cans blocking a driveway and then takes several turns, including an unbelievable rant about Elon Musk that someone actually posted.
Next Up on Nextdoor: “We make fun of your neighbors so you don’t have to.”
Nashville podcaster Kent Peterson (Blame Your Brother) and Chicago comedian Brad Claggett started this podcast in January to share posts from their respective neighborhoods, focusing on one (and its comments) each week.
Sample episode: “Rabbits Gone Wild,” in which the residents of Chicago’s Upper Edgewater and Rogers Park neighborhoods express concern about the proliferation of wild rabbits, which prompts the existential question: “How many rabbits would you need to see before posting about it on Nextdoor?”