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Civic Tech and Engagement: How and Why Nextdoor Brings Neighborhoods Online

BY Denise Cheng | Monday, February 2 2015

Nextdoor released a neighborly index report in 2013 (Nextdoor)

Nothing brings people together on the social network Nextdoor like a lost dog. "If Tahoe Park had a crest, it would be a running chihuahua,” joked Isaac Gonzalez, a site moderator for Nextdoor Tahoe Park, a neighborhood in Sacramento, California. "What galvanizes a lot of people is lost pets, but mainly dogs. Every time a chihuahua gets loose, there’s going to be a message about it."

Nextdoor, which was founded in 2010 and has raised $100.2 million in funding from venture capitalists, is actually a federation of smaller social networks defined by neighborhood boundaries. When members sign up, they have to prove their residence. If their address is linked to a landline, they can request an automated call. Online, potential members have several options, including giving their social security number or credit card billing address. For those who are wary of sharing such information, Nextdoor mails postcards with a verification code, or a neighborhood site moderator, called a lead, can vouch for you.

Co-founders Prakash Janakirama, Nirav Tolia and Sarah Leary have worked together on a few companies for more than 10 years. Nextdoor began as Fanbase, a site that aimed to be the Internet's ESPN. But despite hitting 10 million visits a month, the founders knew that they would not achieve their original goal, and so in 2011, they pivoted to Nextdoor.

Nextdoor does not share its membership size, but from its launch in October 2011 to today, the company says it has grown from 170 to 49,000 neighborhood sites across the country.

Topics of conversation on Nextdoor sites focus mainly on crime and safety, community issues, and recommendations for restaurants, handiwork, and more. On my neighborhood site, people use Nextdoor for anything from missing pets to reporting suspicious activity on the street to selling used appliances at a bargain. Members post neighborhood events, discuss changes to local ordinances, and solicit recommendations for dentists, plumbers, scooter repairs, and advice for raccoon problems. What they don’t do: share pictures, post status updates, or link to other social networks. Nextdoor is about utility.

Danger Grabs Headlines and Drives Engagement

Some of the most vibrant stories about Nextdoor are a variation on “if it bleeds, it leads."

Last year, PandoDaily reported that two neighbors in Menlo Park (the company’s birthplace) spotted a speeding car in their neighborhood, which has only one inlet and one outlet. Confounded, the neighbors ran outside to be met by police, who advised them to lock their doors: a group of foiled burglars were cornered in their neighborhood and law enforcement had blocked the outlet. One of the neighbors sent an urgent alert over Nextdoor that the neighborhood was on lockdown. Residents who were out running errands or at work immediately checked in with their family. Those who were at home posted updates and pictures on the Nextdoor site.

"While this may sound like a dramatic one-off, stories like these are increasingly becoming to Nextdoor what photos were to Facebook,” PandoDaily quipped. "That is to say, the thing that makes you join and makes sure you don’t quit.”

Conversations across Nextdoor sites consistently fall across six categories, with recommendations, community issues, and crime and safety leading the way. (Nextdoor)

Political scientist Martha Nussbaum has a theory of cosmopolitanism, where we relate first to ourselves, then our family, the community, our country and, finally, all of humanity. It is easy to visualize her theory as a series of concentric circles, with our personal safety at the center; fight-or-flight is a response that is hardwired into our brains. Threats to our neighborhood hit close to home and provide a strong impetus for thick engagement.

“A lot of times, what we see is there is a tipping point in a neighborhood where it’ll be chugging along—one member, two members, 10 members, then they get to 20—over time all Nextdoor sites grow,” said Kelsey Grady, Nextdoor’s head of communications. “But usually there’s something that happens in the neighborhood—a rash of break-ins, graffiti—and then you see a total spike, where the site goes from 20 members to 100 overnight.” Nextdoor first noticed this during a rash of home invasions in Piedmont, California, and, more recently, during a 6.0 earthquake in Napa, California, last year.

What it Takes to Start a Nextdoor Neighborhood Site

Each of the 49,000 Nextdoor neighborhood sites began with a founding member. A founding member has 21 days to convince nine other neighbors to join the Nextdoor site. If it is adopted by fewer than 10 people, then the Nextdoor site never launches. About 20 percent of neighborhood site candidates fail to make the cut.

Once a Nextdoor neighborhood site has launched, members’ comments are tagged with their real name and the street where they live. “In our beta year, we learned that we had to model the real world online so that we could get neighbors comfortable conversing online,” Grady said. “A few things that were really important were creating trust, privacy, true identity, and one of the ways that manifested is our verification process.”

“Usually, the community does a pretty good job of telling someone if what they posted was inappropriate. We let the community do their own self-policing,” Grady said.

The founding member can assign leads—members who act as moderators. The leads review flagged comments and decide whether to delete inappropriate ones. Leads can also mute members, verify and approve new members, and appoint other leads.

Neither leads nor founding members are compensated, but Nextdoor provides a forum for leads across the country to trade tips on fostering a neighborhood site. To help leads grow their neighborhood site, Nextdoor staff have created a “printables” repository for leads to customize fliers and business cards, download talking points to help their neighbors understand Nextdoor, and even provide yard signs to make Nextdoor more visible.

A view of the leads forum from one of the Nextdoor Lower Haight leads. (Diane Zimmer)

Gordon Strause, Nextdoor’s director of neighborhood operations, has been surprised by the diversity of their leads. He said, “It’s less about being savvy with technology (or even necessarily savvy about neighborhood organizing) as much as, are you willing to put in your time to get the word out? A lot of times, it’s just about the person who’s willing to go out and flier their neighborhoods; that is the person who makes Nextdoor successful. I would not have guessed that savviness is [less] important [than] time.”

The type of residence also has an effect on engagement. “Owners typically are more engaged. It makes sense because they have a permanent stake in the neighborhood. Longtime renters would be just as engaged,” said Strause, noting that this is anecdotal since Nextdoor does not ask ownership status during signup. “I think that’s one of the reasons that Nextdoor skews a little older than other social networks; we tend to get people once they’ve decided, ‘okay I’m going to be in this community for a longer period of time.’ It’s taken hold more in places where there’s homeownership and, therefore, probably more suburban.”

The Life of a Lead

Isaac Gonzalez is a dream lead for Nextdoor. He has lived in Sacramento all his life, he works for The California Endowment, is the president of the Tahoe Park Neighborhood Association, and he used to run a blog about local politics. He is a community advocate through and through.

Recently, Tahoe Park has been attracting more young families. Gonzalez and his wife landed in Tahoe Park when they were looking for their first affordable home. In 2008, they bought a house on the same block as an older woman who bought her home brand new in 1947. “We got really lucky that this was the place that we decided would be our first home. Now I can’t imagine living anywhere but Tahoe Park."

To Gonzalez, Nextdoor both exemplifies and amplifies what it means to have an involved, hyperlocal community. One older woman who posted on the site needed repairs for her picket fence but could not afford to do so. The neighborhood rallied around her. Some people volunteered time, some people volunteered paint, and together, they replaced the fence.

The Tahoe Park Neighborhood Association has been raising money for scholarships for 10 years. The students in nearby high schools almost all qualify for free or reduced lunch. "Any of the seniors who get accepted to and then enroll in a four-year university are eligible to apply for a scholarship that we provide,” Gonzalez said. “We write checks between $500 - $1,000 depending on how much money we have every year and depending on how many applicants we have every year.” Besides making regular asks, the neighborhood association organizes two annual benefits: a bowling tournament in the spring and a concert at the end of summer. "Since we started using Nextdoor, our participation at those events is much higher than before we used Nextdoor," Gonzalez said.

Not everyone has had as positive an experience as a neighborhood lead. Diane Zimmer has lived in Lower Haight for six years. When Zimmer walks down the street, she bumps into people every few yards and checks in on intimate issues like whether a recent surgery went well. Everyday, Zimmer reads the Bold Italic and Hoodline, respectively the city’s independent cultural magazine and Lower Haight’s hyperlocal news site.

Zimmer’s also a lead for Lower Haight, although not without some cynicism. It is very little work, Zimmer admits, but she finds little joy in being a lead, in part because of a rash of nasty comments during the most recent midterm elections.

When Zimmer thinks about it at all, she wrestles with her involvement on Nextdoor. She became a lead because she felt like her neighbor was pressuring her into it. "There’s no incentive to be a lead. Absolutely nothing,” Zimmer said. “[When Nextdoor was] trying to build it up in San Francisco, I went to a meeting. They were talking about all these things you can do to increase membership in your neighborhood, that you should be mailing all of these postcards, getting more people involved, putting posters up. And I was like, and what happens after? And they said, 'Oh, we’re thinking about doing a contest. The first neighborhood to a thousand people gets [something like a] Starbucks gift card.' I don’t go to Starbucks."

Zimmer recognizes that some people get value by saying "I’m the number one Yelper, and I love this and this is great, or Wikipedia. There are so many things on the Internet that people do it just for the satisfaction of doing it.” But she also thinks San Francisco is different. It is not a small town with shared values, even on a neighborhood level. In her experience, San Francisco’s political culture, combined with a neighborhood’s density and transience means that while users may see real names, they also do not feel bad about leaving nasty comments.

Zimmer feels there are more positive than negative interactions, but she also sees a new avenue for people to express their lack of empathy. "This homeless guy who lives in the Panhandle, his dog got stolen. People were just so stressed out and they set up a reward,'” The post went out as an urgent alert across a few adjoining neighborhoods. Soon enough, the man and his dog were tearfully reunited. “People were posting pictures of the reunion—it was really, really sweet.”

But it was also bittersweet. “Even with that homeless guy with his dog, there was a digression of: well, should homeless people have dogs? Is this guy mentally stable enough to have a dog? The people who [knew him were] really adamant. They said 'You know what? You don’t know him, we do. We see him everyday, and we know that this brings an incredible amount of joy.’ I did feel like the people commenting didn’t know him personally. The [neighbors] talking about it were like, 'he’s part of our neighborhood, too.'”

Zimmer also complains about having to filter through fake accounts. "For some reason, there’s no way to clear out those requests, or maybe there is…again, i’m not going to put a lot of time into it. There’s no incentive for me, why would I try to find out how to clear out people from the queue? Because I don’t care; they could sit there forever.”

For what it's worth, there is a way to hide those requests. And there are ways to assign other leads, but Zimmer feels like being a lead is a burden, so why would she proposition someone else to do it?

In all, Zimmer estimates that she spends an hour per week to keep up with her lead responsibilities. But even Gonzalez, the dream lead, has challenged people who wish he did more on Nextdoor. "Whenever someone says to me, ‘As a lead, I wish you’d do this. As a lead, I wish you’d take a heavier hand doing that,’ [I tell them] if you want to be a lead, too, you can be a lead, too,” Gonzalez said. “Nine times out of 10, they say no. They realize it’s a pretty big responsibility.”

Partnering with Public Agencies

Nextdoor has received many requests for neighborhood police officers to have a presence on Nextdoor, to the point where leads threatened to approve officers even if they did not live in the neighborhood. Nextdoor had to weigh neighborhood safety with its value proposition as a neighbor-to-neighbor platform.

“We take privacy very seriously, and if we take a step back and think about it, we don’t want your beat officer joining Nextdoor and having the same visibility into your Nextdoor site as any resident,” Grady, the company's head of communications, explained. “[We pled with residents to] let us build something to actually make the right experience, not only for the officer, but for residents. And that’s when we started investing in our Nextdoor for public agencies platform.”

The public agencies partnership officially launched in September 2014. Leading up to the partnership, Nextdoor worked with a handful of cities—mostly law enforcement, neighborhood services, and offices of emergency management—to test special interfaces for public agencies (to Nextdoor’s surprise, members want to hear more from their public safety officer than their mayor). Multiple employees can post on an agency’s behalf. However, public agencies cannot see any conversation on neighborhood sites except responses to their own posts.

Design Milestones (Nextdoor)

Scaling Up, Literally: How To Do Cities

Real world neighborhoods vary in population size. In Menlo Park, the setting for Nextdoor’s first site, there are 3,721 residents per square mile. In Manhattan there are 69,468 residents per square mile. Over the years, Nextdoor has found that the most dynamic sites have 700 participating households. According to Grady, the company has seen that when a site passes 3,000 households, conversations do not feel intimate anymore.

“One of the biggest challenges of Nextdoor is creating these neighborhood boundaries: What is a neighborhood, and what is a Nextdoor neighborhood?” Grady explained. The founding member draws a neighborhood site’s boundaries. “In some cities like Chicago, they have defined 300 neighborhoods but we have probably 500 or so Nextdoor neighborhoods because we split them into smaller chunks.”

This finer breakdown means that people who live in Midtown may not actually be part of Nextdoor Midtown. They might be part of a smaller Nextdoor site. Yet geographic boundaries are arbitrary; when a dog runs away, it does not know that it should stay within invisible social lines. In recognition of this, Nextdoor created its “Nearby Neighborhoods” feature where members can broadcast messages beyond their own site’s boundaries. Each site’s nearby neighborhoods are determined by a mix of adjoining neighborhoods and population density.

Nextdoor has verified 49,000 boundaries across the nation using its chunking methodology and believes that there are 150,000 boundaries in all. Once all 150,000 neighborhoods have been mapped out, Nextdoor believes that every neighborhood in the United States will be online.

When it comes to splitting dense neighborhoods, however, New York City presents an interesting problem. By sticking with Nextdoor’s chunking methodology, a New Yorker’s Nextdoor neighborhood could be his or her high-rise. “The distinction I’d make [between Nextdoor sites] is less urban-suburban but single-family homes versus high-rises,” Strause, the director of neighborhood operations, said. He described high-rises as vertical living environments and said that getting them right is important for Nextdoor’s future international plans. “That’s partly the product; we haven’t really nailed Nextdoor for high-rises yet. We’re just starting to roll out features targeting them.”

Strause has also seen Nextdoor sites act as an alternative outlet for neighbors. The neighborhood operations team has observed tension between many Home Owners’ Associations and neighborhood residents, what Strause described as fiefdoms. “There’s just a lot of planned communities out there where HOAs have a lot of power over people’s lives. They can actually issue fines, but there are different varieties. Some HOAs are purely voluntary, some are not—you have your dues,” Strause explained. “The HOAs, in some ways, are sort of like mini-governments that are out there.” However, Nextdoor site members do not have the same tension with neighborhood associations. “Neighborhood associations tend to be a little more voluntary,” Strause continued. “They’re people who have a civic interest who come together.”

The Nearby Neighborhoods feature plays just as important of a role in suburban settings, especially when it comes to “Not In My Back Yard,” or NIMBYism. “[Nextdoor] does allow folks who want to self-organize in a neighborhood to do so. Part of that will be some NIMBY activity—there’s no doubt about that,” Strause explained. Members who propagate NIMBYism tend to want to spread it, and the Nearby Neighborhoods feature would be the natural next step. “This ability to begin to communicate beyond a real concentrated’s a communication tool, and...what it is up to is people in the neighborhood and people in the community to show leadership and make a case for why things [should or should not happen].”

Indexing Neighborliness

When it comes to the Internet, what is the equivalent of a wave or a quick nod? Nextdoor positions itself at the forefront of neighborhood resurgence, and it released a neighborly index report in 2013. The results came from a mix of survey responses from Nextdoor members and sources like Pew Research.

Aside from microaffirmation features and the as-yet unquantified anecdotes about effective leads, Nextdoor has not quite figured out how to manifest its findings of real world interactions into online equivalents. Besides how to transliterate to online analogues, a thick engagement question is how to move the needle with those who are naturally less engaged. For example, if people who are single are less likely to interact in their physical neighborhoods, what needs to happen to get those same people to interact in more than just an online equivalent of their real neighborhood?

“We believe that we actually can use technology to reverse some of these trends [that have reduced real world interactions] that technology probably has been to blame,” Grady said. “It’s still too early to actually manifest itself into hard data but…we look forward to the time when we can look back and see a neighborhood and say: Okay what was this neighborhood like pre-Nextdoor and post-Nextdoor? And we’re starting to get pretty close to being able to do some of that analysis.”

Flush with venture capital, Nextdoor has a while to experiment before it needs to bring in revenue. In the meantime, the company’s goal is to create an appealing, intuitive product. One recent initiative was a Halloween map where Nextdoor members could mark if their houses would have candy, if they had decorated their homes as haunted houses. Another was a Christmas map for spectacular outdoor lighting displays. “There’s actually a lot of really fun neighborhood info that’s locked in people’s heads,” Strause said. “One of the things we want to do over time is give people a place to put that.”

Among some of the other possibilities, Nextdoor acknowledges that local businesses want a way to interact with local residents. Other media outlets have hinted that local businesses might be part of Nextdoor’s revenue strategy. “When it comes, there will be a natural place for them or a dedicated place for those types of conversation in the product. Right now, there isn’t.” This speaks to Nextdoor’s hesitation to insert editorial content from the company, even things like a local weather bug in the corner of a site.

When Nextdoor started, the company did not realize the level of utility it would take on. The founders believed it would act as a neighborhood version of Craigslist or Yelp, a place for classifieds and recommendations. Although members talk more about recommendations and community issues, public safety is the carrot to join the network. The company sees its involvement in various scenes: the connected home movement, the sharing economy, the local first movement, virtual neighborhood watch trend, smart cities, and the online-to-offline trend.

“We’re building a network around connections that don’t currently exist today,” Grady said. “Facebook is based off a friend graph that already exists in the real world. LinkedIn, same thing. For us, we’re bringing people together that would not connect otherwise, but they should because they live right next to each other.”

Denise Cheng is an applied researcher and civic strategist affiliated with the MIT Center for Civic Media.