During a recent conversation with a friend who has a firm libertarian bent, I brought up the subject of NextDoor, a social media competitor of Facebook and Twitter, because I was aware that he used it as his sole means of communicating with his neighborhood. He did not want to join his neighborhood association or attend meetings. He did not want to pay dues or otherwise have skin in the game of neighborhood communications. Having a difficult time convincing him of the drawbacks of joining NextDoor, I nonetheless tried to appeal to his libertarian proclivities with my own rambling populist arguments against the network.
I have been intending to explain more insightfully and reflectively than I did to the libertarian why I grow more concerned and even suspicious of NextDoor based on what I learn about it. Our conversation is partly the catalyst of these ruminations.
I confess off the bat that the first invitation I received to join my neighborhood’s chapter of NextDoor came from an association officer in whom I had no confidence or trust. The ethos of the solicitor killed any interest I might have had in NextDoor. But that was not the sole reason I did not join the popular social media service.
Our association had experimented with a number of online mediums since its founding in 2005, each one promoted at various points along the way by hipsters and techies as more reliable and friendly than the last. It felt like a merry-go-round of emailing and social networks, and NextDoor was merely the next wooden horse to me. I am proud to say I am not an early adopter of start-up products that may be here with bubbles today and gone with the wind tomorrow. Promises are made too easily by these companies, and follow-through often leaves much to be desired.
So, I stuck with the last neighborhood Google groups we had been using for a couple of years. I still rely on them as a counter-culture to NextDoor. The other thing that stuck in my craw about NextDoor was precisely what my libertarian friend liked: there were no dues or association membership requirements, and anyone in the 37208 zip code could join, according to the invitations that were sent to me.
It was like a perfect storm of reasons not to bandwagon like many of my neighbors were doing (according to an email I received earlier this year, 100 households from the area had joined NextDoor).
This year I started reading more complaints about NextDoor, mainly from other neighborhood leaders who themselves are growing ambivalent about the private social network. Several of those discussions occurred on Nashville’s Neighborhoods forum (Google Groups). I was frankly surprised at the number of complaints from thoughtful people.
Personal emails I have received from those in my community who are NextDoor members express appreciation for the different way the service brings people who would not have contact together. Those same emails also express misgivings that NextDoor does not promote neighborhood associations proper. In fact, NextDoor may undermine associations by attempting to be an online surrogate or stand-in for neighborhood associations. The obvious consequence is the sacrifice of relatively durable ways of organizing people for positive change at the local level in favor of more fragile and uninfluential digital tissue that is open to the compromises of hackers, demagogues, information overload and network outages. While online networks like NextDoor are free (is anything truly free?), they are are not nearly as robust or revealing as face-to-face commitments, which I grant tend to tax personal time, energy and resources.
Whether networks are actually better than associations at mobilizing people to act is undoubtedly open to debate. Until they prove superior, online “communities” represent a pale and rough-cut imitation of actual communities. Let’s not confuse communication with community. Let’s not confuse accessibility with order. Agreements between a subset of people in a NextDoor thread unbounded by rules of order can be confused with neighborhood consensus reached on planning and zoning matters.
The possibility of NextDoor mimicking and swiping power from associations points to an even more acute problem articulated on the Neighborhoods forum this past summer: NextDoor allows officials with political motives to keep tabs on the community organizing process more effectively than offline face-to-face associations do. Neighbors expressed concern that Mayor Karl Dean’s office has access to NextDoor’s neighborhood discussions and that the NextDoor field organizer in Nashville listed herself as a “political organizer” (she was manager of a school board member’s political campaign). The Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods, which posts to NextDoors’ message boards, is itself headed by a seasoned political strategist and veteran of several political campaigns. More than empowering neighborhoods, NextDoor seems to blur the lines between the human tendency to associate for the common good and top-down strategic campaigns in which the ends justifies the means.
The interface between NextDoor field organizing and the campaign aspirations of the Mayor’s Office is troubling for those of us who believe that Metro government should be responsive and accountable to the democratic process. While NextDoor may end up being a promotional, PR vehicle making future candidates for political office stronger, it renders us politically passive and collectively weak in the struggle to meaningfully express a vision for our community.
In a September email to neighborhood groups, council member Emily Evans made the following observations about NextDoor:
They are using a marketing strategy similar to a political campaign or grass roots organization with field organizers that gather information and recruit participants. Their business model is dependent on advertising. Presumably, they will be making each neighborhood’s website available to businesses that wish to target a particular demographic.
The Antioch-based NextDoor organizer requested from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods a list of all neighborhood associations and their contact information. While the Mayor’s Office does not seek to support commercial enterprise in this manner, the list is, in fact, a public record and so it was released. I believe the emails for the 23rd District are confined to just a handful of former neighborhood association officers. The NextDoor field organizer created a webpage/list for each of the neighborhoods listed in the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods contact list and contacted friends who lived in the area to invite – again using the list from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods – residents to join the NextDoor network.
Again, access to information, even when public, gives those in power a distinct strategic and tactical advantage over community-based groups. If the Mayor’s Office wishes to influence NextDoor audiences on a particular zoning issue, for instance, the private network is a potentially effective vehicle. That kind of sweeping influence and dominant messaging aided by instantaneous communication should give us pause.
When the interests of the powerful clash with the interests of the populace, who is likely to beat the other? Those who are able to monopolize the generators and filters of information.
Just this week a neighborhood leader in Woodland-in-Waverly pointed out that an announcement on a council meeting regarding an important bill the Mayor is pushing to finance a new minor league ballpark in Nashville went to them via NextDoor the day after the meeting. That failure could be an honest mistake or it could be a tactic to muffle and to manage public response to brick-and-mortar projects that pad the Mayor’s resume submitted in a future run for higher office.
That view of NextDoor ought to be enough to convince my libertarian friend.
But even if you do not choose a power analysis as your first move on this question, there is still a gaping flaw. The fundamental problem with the NextDoor business model is that it intends to flip minimally monetized networks that neighbors have set up with email lists and online discussion forums into advertising saturated marketplaces where the social ties that people build are downplayed in favor of analyzing human behavior as data and maximizing metrics. Oh, sure, NextDoor gets an assist with the head fakes of techie reporters who make the enterprise seem communitarian and closer to culture than to digital commerce; but as long as NextDoor continues to draw venture capital at a jaw-dropping clip ($100 million in 18 months), the geeks and the opportunists are going to bandwagon them.
Those of us in actual communities have to focus on questions more substantial than how advertising is going to convince us to buy a pitch or a product we would not have otherwise considered. We are still going to want some power over and independence from networks we construct. NextDoor seems to be defiant if not abusive of our drive toward self-determination.
Metro Nashville Public Schools started classes 2 weeks ago, and for the first time in 4 years, our 9-year-old did not start classes with MNPS. For the first time ever, after raising two daughters, I am not a public school parent.
Our youngest attended a North Nashville magnet school–which was practically a neighborhood school for us–from Kindergarten until 3rd grade. It is an urban school, predominantly African American, with a high number of students in the reduced price lunch program. Having said that, we can also say that we were satisfied with our former school. We do not have horror stories about bad teachers and callous principals, stories that tend to be the emotional fodder of education reformers and parent triggers.
After four years, we have had generally great experiences with our daughter’s teachers, a supportive relationship with her principal, and meaningful friendships that we are sad to leave behind.
If it were not for the administration of MNPS, we would probably be staying for her final year at the magnet and beyond. But we look at the way MNPS is managing its school system, implementing education reform and trying to appease courthouse and business elites and we are left feeling concerned about facing the upcoming lottery for middle schools without a safety net.
Instead of a liberal education based on John Dewey’s ideas that public schools should prepare students to become empowered, participating citizens in a robust, inclusive democracy, MNPS’s values conform to the corporate elites at the Nashville Chamber of Commerce and the school reformers who are bent on privatizing public education.
Public schools administration here has always seemed bureaucratic, and arrogantly so. It is a reason other parents gave me in the past for pulling their kids out. That has not changed. We called MNPS last week to request a refund on our kid’s cafeteria balance. We had to go through three layers of bureaucracy to find out what the balance was. When we finally got someone in accounting to tell us, their tone audibly came across as rattled that we would request back our prepayments for unclaimed lunches. Getting a refund has been easier, though, than finding out our daughter’s TCAP scores from last spring. MNPS is tardy divulging those.
Add to the standard iron cage of bureaucracy the latest red-state pressure to destroy public education and replace it with a combination of market-based values of privatization and theologically conservative emphases on subsidizing parochial education, and parents like us who have been committed and loyal to public education face a real mess we did not cause. There is nothing remotely resembling a scuffle over the State of Tennessee’s red-state assault on public schools.
Republicans predictably see no harm in dismantling schools that are supposed to be common, open and free to all. But the biggest disappointment is on the left: Democrats have surrendered the line on public education. They no longer work to empower parents and teachers to fight for the shared goal of supporting teaching and making our schools stronger. Instead, the Democrats, led by the Obama administration, embrace charter schools, high-stakes testing and venture philanthropy. They make their beds with shock-doctrine, lobbying groups like Teach for America (essentially a temp worker program for teaching), Stand for Children (undermining teachers unions for years), Democrats for Education Reform (the party’s ideological whip for privatization). Democrats on education seem to prefer more social Darwinism, less participatory democracy. I have less confidence in them than in Metro Schools.
The evening before the first day that public schools were in session, we received a MNPS robocall with a recording of Jesse Register welcoming us back and thanking us for making Metro schools “our choice” for education. It was emblematic of exactly what is wrong with Register’s administration: education and socialization seem like afterthoughts and qualifiers to market-style choices.
First of all, Register’s mantra of choice is a myth. As public school parents we never had a choice not to have a choice as defined by the Director of Schools. MNPS remains a lumbering bureaucracy with a veneer of the “innovation” brand to please the suits at the Chamber of Commerce. That brand touts charter schools, which drain money and pry infrastructure from traditional schools while granting choices to a select number of students. If you cut through all of the gray propaganda about “innovation”, you will see like we have that charters are nothing more than public private schools. Reformers contrast “innovation” to “failing” public schools. But it is not clear that innovation is in fact succeeding:
what concerns me about this current ‘choice’ movement is that it is really just an illusion. From my research I’ve concluded that parents in poor community may have ‘choice,’ but those choices are about the same in quality as the schools they are escaping. Some schools, particularly some charter schools, have found ways to make themselves ‘seem’ like they are doing significantly better than the nearby ‘failing’ school, but when I’ve really looked deeply into the numbers I’ve found these schools to generally have a lot of student attrition and even with that, have pretty low standardized test scores.
To paraphrase the late George Carlin, we are deceived into thinking that deciding between paper or plastic qualifies as democratic choice.
In reality, the campaign to anti-brand public schools as “failing” is not above reproach:
We have been bamboozled by fast-talkers who manipulate scores, grading systems and terminology to portray public schools as failures, and their preferred alternatives – semi private and for-profit charter schools – as superior …. in the view of these reformers, “government” schools have a monopoly that must be disrupted in order for competitors to gain entry to the marketplace. This monopoly can be disrupted by the use of standardized tests, with high stakes consequences for failure. In order for this to work, failure MUST be identified in public schools, and they must be shut down, so as to release students and public funding to semi-private and private alternatives.
If this is not an outright coup d’etat of a community-based, democratic public education system, it is at the very least a rigging of the game to set public education up for failure instead of solving its problems on its own terms.
We have to make the best of the false choices in front of us in spite of their mythic proportion. We did not invent this system. We are proud of our service to public education during our daughter’s first four years. We did what we could to exercise community-based values as parents, including volunteering, participating in PTO (which met irregularly if ever during our last year) and supporting our teachers and principal. But it was a battle we could not win. Third grade was particularly gut-wrenching because of TCAP pressures coming from the top down. Our experience with high-stakes test preparation was awful and it took its toll on the quality of our home life. The teach-to-the-test demands have little to do with our vision of quality education to prepare our nine-year-old for becoming an autonomous, responsible adult suited for democratic citizenship.
After months of deliberation and discussion, we acquiesced to the “choice” Jesse Register offered us and pulled our child out of the public school system in order to enroll her in parochial school. The latter emphasizes social justice, which is more consistent with our worldview than the market-based strategies currently employed at MNPS. We believe that education has to reach beyond developing a docile workforce to take jobs that they are then supposed to feel obliged to have in a tough economy made worse by concentrated wealth. I realize that the decision is not without irony. However, it becomes difficult to continue the fight at the expense of our daughter’s well-being with the controversial prospect of Common Core testing replacing TCAPs in 2015.
Common Core looms like an agent of disaster capitalism ill-designed to educate. It has been called “massive fraud” perpetrated by financial interests that stand to gain “tremendous profits from chaotic change” engendered by the campaign to stigmatize public schools as “failing”. The Tennessean acknowledges that the standards focus on what business leaders want from applicants. Education must do more than represent a huge transfer of wealth from public coffers to private pockets. It must do more than provide businesses a docile work force of shelf stockers. Common Core appears to be nothing but shock doctrine, and our family got enough shock from TCAP to leverage us toward making the “choice” Jesse Register touts. At this point, I have no interest in facing the new brutalities of same-as-the-old-change in Common Core.
We are prepared to give parochial school a chance for at least a year, and it is our safety net for the time being. If Nashville had a strong opt-out movement, we would feel safer about staying with MNPS, but we cannot opt-out of testing without assuming undue risk. I’ve already received positive signs from our new school: like a teacher telling me that she does not teach to the test. If parochial education fits us we will stay. I have no doubt that we will miss the diversity of the last four years, but the district’s preoccupations with charters and testing have wiped out the benefits of attending a school in our urban neighborhood for a fifth year.
So much of public education policy now is hidden from parents. MNPS meets quietly with charter school operators (who get to pick and choose the students they want). Common Core standards are formulated by “work groups” that deliberately exclude affected students, parents, and teachers. Wealthy philanthropists have access to Common Core aligned test results, but parents do not. MNPS sponsors “collaborations” with North Nashville along the Jefferson Street corridor, but does not announce them to our PTOs and neighborhood associations. Having to bear the lack of transparency, to take a backseat to elites who do not have the investment we do–on top of the ridiculous pressures of TCAP and Common Core–is too much for common sense to brook.
We still support the idea of public education. In its highest form, public education is aligned more with social justice than with choices between commodities. Even though we are newly minted parochial school parents, we will gladly pay our taxes to support the public ideal itself. However, for the sake of our daughter, we are going to need to see more district alignment with our values before we give more than our money to Metro Nashville Public Schools.
Libertarian arguments against government–namely that we would be better with the most minimal form of governance if we would allow the “free” market to rule–suffer their own legitimacy crisis lately in the wake of news that a Tennessee squad of firefighters stood around and allowed a home to burn to the ground because the owners forgot to pay their subscription fee to the firefighters. Morality of the free market proved to be bankrupt in this situation, but this is not the first time the conservative ideology found itself wanting.
One of the other fatal problems with Libertarianism as a world view is the way it becomes a stack pole propping half-baked histories that are warped, filled with holes and disintegrating. Millton Friedman exhibited the tendencies of libertarians to fabricate history to suit the ideology with an interviewer who brought up the trepidation of New Yorkers toward the prospect of privatizing Central Park:
If Central Park were not owned by the government, it never would have become the filthy place it became. You forget what happened to Central Park. We–for years, for some years, a long, long time ago–lived on Central Park West. We were in New York. This was during the war …. We were able to take our children down to the park when they were babies … even with a teenage sitter, and nobody was worried about safety. But in more recent years, until the very recent years, Central Park came to be a place where you wouldn’t dare to that. It wasn’t safe. That was because it was a government park.
The central principle is that nobody takes care of somebody else’s property as well as he takes care of his own. If Central Park were privately owned, it would be advantageous to provide a recreational space.
The nearly-150-year history of New York City’s Central Park does not seem like the spiral to ruin that Friedman made it to be to serve his sermons against government. Instead, it seems to be a history of growing progress and democratization over the decades.
And Friedman was disingenuous in referring to how safe the park was in the mid-40s when his children were babies without mentioning the historical context of dramatic enhancements due to federal government money that flowed in the preceding decade from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Here is the actual history around the time Friedman lived near the park:
In 1934, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia placed Robert Moses in charge of a new centralized citywide park system. During his twenty-six year regime, Moses introduced many of the facilities advocated by the progressive reformers. With the assistance of federal money during the Depression, Moses built 20 playgrounds on the park’s periphery, renovated the Zoo, realigned the drives to accommodate automobiles, added athletic fields to the North Meadow, and expanded recreational programming.
So, why does Friedman blame the extension of government oversight of the park for eroding safety in later decades? The 50’s and 60’s were characterized less by government control and more by private-public partnerships. Why not blame the accommodation of automobiles, which gave criminal elements quick access and egress?
The 1970’s, which were years of spiking crime rates in Central Park, were also haunted by a receding government in budget crisis and long-term decline in maintenance. These are the very years Friedman seems to be reacting to. However, there are no guarantees that private enterprise would have managed the park or prevented crime any more effectively. They would be just as likely to cut spending on maintenance and security to survive. The reality is that there was a correlation between lower government revenues and urban decay.
Milton Friedman’s diatribes against government prove to be irrelevant at the local level, especially when the history of municipalities does not mesh with his ideology. Unfettered big business would be no more effective and in some ways it would be more hazardous to the progress and democratization that civic processes create.
In 1993, Stephen Carter in his important book The Culture of Disbelief argued that religious expression is trivialized in public discourse because of political habits of reducing it to a purely private pursuit or hobby with no authority and little influence in public life. Conceding all of the ways that blogging and religion may be different from one another, I intend to underscore a significant way they are alike in American culture: except for the very large, influential houses, they are both politically and economically trivialized as subjective and individualized expressions impinging little on society.
I do not intend to argue that personal, private expressions of opinion do not carry any intrinsic value or have their own kinds of influence. Hobbies and subjective pursuits are invaluable and can give rise to significant projects. What I am more focused on is the way writing as blogging is hemmed in and marginalized by attitudes that power, authority, and legitimacy arise elsewhere.
I am also not attempting to skirt the truth that blogging has often brought the minimizing on itself. Blogging has turned the publishing world on its head. (more…)
In the wake of the May 2010 Nashville floods the refrain bounces around that Nashville never waits on anybody else to volunteer to relieve and to restore. That comment seems like an underhanded swipe at government response, which is not exactly off base.
However, it is disingenuous, since Nashville often does wait on non-profit relief organizations that contract with local government to organize volunteers. Hands on Nashville (HON) is one of those organizations. It says that it mobilized thousands in response to the May floods. While I do not question the truth of the reportage, I believe it is perilous in general for Nashvillians to accept a government contractor’s numbers on faith without some form of independent verification. But I digress.
Even before the May floods Nashvillians who wanted to volunteer for projects on neighborhood public schools, for instance, were required to sign up with HON for teams that were limited to a certain number of people. (more…)
Political motives and tenderfooted consulting dog auditor’s investigation of Metro Nashville Police Department crime stat collection
A story in the weekend paper confirms to me that the investigation into the Metro Police Department’s crime stat collection processes is serious in appearance only. The company hired to conduct the audit of MNPD is not exactly seasoned:
In response to Mayor Karl Dean’s request in May for an audit of police crime statistics, Metro auditors have hired a California-based company with no prior clients to help figure out if the department has been skewing local crime statistics.
The company, Elite Performance Auditing Consultants, has agreed to look at police policies and practices for free (aside from travel expenses) in return for a glowing letter of recommendation by Metro afterward.
Earlier this summer I offered the view that calls for this audit were more election year pretense for attention-seeking politicians and less an initiative of reform. Conservative Metro Council members have been the main advocates of this witch hunt, especially CM Jim Gotto, who is looking to make the leap this year from the Courthouse to the General Assembly. Aside from such opportunistic office-jumpers with an interest in keeping their names in front of voters in the news media, Mayor Karl Dean is logically also interested in channeling this investigation to his advantage for a second term. (more…)