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The neighbor NextDoor?

Posted in Uncategorized by Mike Byrd on November 13, 2013

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.

….the site and its message from local organizers have a distinct political tilt.  In which direction I could not say.  The privacy policy suggests that NextDoor will not give up your information but in this day and age, I just don’t think that is something you should count on. Having worked on more than a few political campaigns, I can tell you that contact lists are the coin of the realm.  So be warned.

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.

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