Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Strangers Nextdoor

Gone, mostly, are the days of asking your neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar. When I was growing up, my mother viewed our neighbors with irritation — their principal crimes were overdoing their Christmas decorations, and on one occasion, drunk-driving through our fence. I can count on one hand the pleasant neighborly interactions I’ve had as an adult. Once, in my upscale urban neighborhood in Atlanta, my fiancĂ© asked another neighbor for an egg — he eyed us with suspicion, as if blueberry muffins were a pretext for some sort of political scam or a multi-level marketing scheme. Now, irritation generally characterizes my relationship with my neighbors. Why would you wear heels when you have hardwood floors and a downstairs neighbor? Who still listens to the Barenaked Ladies, much less on repeat? But I also have intense curiosity, and in the absence of peeking through my neighbors’ windows as I walk by, which is hard to do in a high-rise, I have Nextdoor.

Nextdoor, for the sane and detached among you, is a social media platform that’s locality-driven, an alternative to meetings you actually have to show up for, neighborhood Facebook groups that might give away a little too much information about you, or listservs that clog your inbox. When you sign up, you give your address, which the company verifies by credit card billing address, phone billing address, or postcard. You have access only to your neighborhood and a few surrounding hoods. It’s a place to post about a lost dog or found kittens, advertise an estate sale, or ask for recommendations for a handyman from fellow residents.

My neighborhood’s Nextdoor includes a space for officials to communicate with residents, like the Atlanta Police Department and the Department of Watershed Management. The categories for posts from residents include classifieds, crime and safety, documents (almost never used), free items, general, lost and found, pet directory, recommendations, events calendar, real estate. More than 150,000 neighborhoods in the U.S., U.K., and Netherlands are on Nextdoor, according to Fortune. It was valued at about $1 billion in 2015.

“Community building” is usually more of a buzzword or phrase on social media, but in this case, it’s quite literal. The idea is that Nextdoor promotes community engagement with the people in your actual, geographic community, and that it would build social capital and better citizens. Instead, it’s been heavily criticized for contributing to fear, distrust, and racist behavior. There are also coyote sightings, warnings about the Starbucks Unicorn drink, and requests to borrow someone’s kombucha scoby.

The Crime category is where the ugliness of Nextdoor is most obvious. The coded language of “hip-hop types” and “thugs” (translation: black or brown), “suspicious” people and the homeless. In 2016, due largely to the efforts of advocacy groups in Oakland, California, the company changed how crimes and suspicious activity are reported in an attempt to crack down on racist language and incidents, forcing residents to describe a person’s clothing, for example, rather than just being able to say “a black man.”

It didn’t used to be like this, neighbors say; “this” being break-ins and rude language and panhandling and litter. Back in my day, we left our doors unlocked, they say. But they also say, be smart. See something, say something. You have second amendment rights. Take no chances.

“I wish we had a death penalty for stealing,” wrote my young, white, female neighbor. “Go to the range and hone in on your shooting ability and drop someone that shows total lack of regard for your personal property,” said a young white man, who explained that “castle doctrine” would protect you from prosecution if you killed someone for breaking your car windows. (No, it wouldn’t, commented a lawyer.)

My former neighbor Heather* exemplifies the worst of Nextdoor. She saw a Dodge Charger with tinted windows and rims parked on her street and posted several times over the course of a few days, with photos and video. “Suspicious Dodge Charger is here around again!!!” “I am getting angry because I don’t see a patrol neighbor drive around to check all of neighbors for their safety plus cop NEED to go his place to take him to jail for stalker often. (I gave him a tag number) there is nothing cop can do bc this suspicious didn’t break a law!”

Someone’s brother ran the plates. Other neighbors posted surveillance photos. Then, Daniel*, another neighbor, chimed in about “this suspicious.” Daniel, whose nanny has never been late, not once in 2 years. In fact, she arrives early every day, so she parks around the corner from the house before her shift.
She didn’t pull into the driveway to get away from you, she pulled into the driveway to bring our kids home. She drives by your house frequently, well, because you are my neighbor. If you want to know, she has a clean driving and criminal record, and the respect of a lot people in our neighborhood. I trust her with the safety of my family and we love her like a member of our family. It breaks my heart to see her arrive in tears, which was the case this morning. I understand why you might approach someone outside your house if you do not recognize the car. Three separate people approached her this morning, each interaction was a bit different, but thematically there was clear message sent “that she didn’t belong”. How can I say that you might ask? Well, one person told her explicitly that she need to go even after she tried to explain who she is, and another approach her with a gun holstered on his hip. You can’t tell me, that as a woman sitting in a car alone you wouldn’t find that scary. Hell, I know I would be scared in that situation.
Not that there isn’t crime, though — there are carjackings, the burglaries, the stolen tires and cold cases. Police departments post about criminals they’ve caught. Neighbors warn each other about rashes of car break-ins.

But it’s the cases of paranoia that are the most fascinating. There’s the mother who saw a car slow down and decided it must be a child sex trafficker out to get her toddler (and the neighbors who backed her up, as a mother’s instinct is never, ever wrong, even when it is). There’s the woman whose neighbor smokes weed, and the commenter who informed her that they probably run a “drug lab.” The man who asked how we should prepare to combat the “Ferguson effect,” or the supposed phenomenon that police officers are now afraid to use force because of the riots over Michael Brown’s death.

by Katie Lambert, The Awl | Read more:
Image: uncredited
[ed. I'm generally a community-minded person and tried Nextdoor thinking it might be something useful (in the last town I lived in). It only took one pass through the site before I decided to unsubscribe (for reasons noted above).]