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This afternoon, Mayor Ed Murray told The C is for Crank that he has ordered a formal review of the city’s year-and-a-half-old partnership with the San Francisco-based private social media site Nextdoor, in light of both the fact that they suspended my account when I reported on questions Nextdoor members asked Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole (my account has since been reinstated), and the general atmosphere of “hysteria” about crime on some Nextdoor neighborhood pages, including those serving Magnolia and Ballard.
“My first concerns, before your post went up, had already come up as a result of the Magnolia and Ballard lists, where some individuals were working themselves into a paranoid hysteria… and becoming more scared and more isolated,” Murray says. “I was already wondering, What the hell’s going on here? Why, suddenly, when we’re having crime stats going down in the city overall, are we seeing a huge uptick in people absolutely freaked out about crime? There are some indications that the complaints about crime may be more related to social media sites than the neighborhoods that actually have crime.”
“I think we need to ask ourselves whether this is the best tool to communicate about public safety,” Murray says, adding that he has asked his office “to dig into” whether Nextdoor’s closed-door policies violate public disclosure rules as well as whether the city will pull out of the partnership altogether.
“We need social media tools that build community, not drive people into a paranoid delusion because they think people, say, delivering mail are somehow” criminals, Murray says. “That is not how you build community.”
Gordon Strause, head of Nextdoor’s neighborhood operations team in San Francisco, told me that after I pointed out that communications with public officials are public (and after Nextdoor reinstated my account) “we realized … it’s not clear, really, that those can be private conversations. We’ve created this expectation [of privacy] with members, so we need to communicate with them—we don’t want them to think we’re doing one thing when we’re doing the other.”
However, he says the solution Nextdoor is considering is to hide users’ names when they respond to city officials (who can post on all Nextdoor pages thanks to the partnership), as opposed to simply updating their terms of services so users know their communications with the city are public. “Replies [to city officials’ posts] are typically not public in our ecosystem,” Nextdoor spokeswoman Kelsey Grady adds.
Of course, a larger issue is that Nextdoor has tens of thousands of subscribers in Seattle, and it’s unrealistic (if not unreasonable) for all of those subscribers to assume everything they share on Nextdoor will stay on Nextdoor. When Nextdoor members say something outrageous—say, that the homeless should be rounded up and sent to the outskirts of town—some other Nextdoor member is likely to pass it on outside the network, even though that means breaking the vow of silence implied by a literal reading of Nextdoor’s terms of service. Even Strause acknowledges this: “I don’t think we have any illusions that people never forward messages to friends. I’ve done that.” But, he adds, “There’s an implicit understanding that when I do that, I know the person wouldn’t have an objection to it.”
The problem is that it’s the things that are most objectionable, that Nextdoor members wouldn’t be willing to say in public, that most need to be heard by the wider public, which is another way of saying that those things are newsworthy. Take this feature from last year in the East Bay Express, which deftly and thoroughly exposed the rampant use of Nextdoor for racial profiling in majority-white neighborhoods in Oakland. None of the information about the ways in which white homeowners were targeting their black neighbors would have come to light if some of those neighbors hadn’t been willing to break the vow and out the others.
Strause and Grady say Nextdoor doesn’t monitor individual city or neighborhood sites. That task is left up to neighborhood “leads,” volunteer moderators who use their discretion to decide which posts to delete and which to let stand. This leaves the tenor of each neighborhood group very much in the hands of the lead, and, predictably, many Nextdoor members have told me they’ve been banished or had posts deleted because their lead didn’t agree with their point of view.
“We really are just a conduit for people to discuss the issues that matter in their communities,” Grady says.
Right now, Nextdoor members are using that “conduit” to reveal, or threaten to reveal, the home addresses of elected officials including Murray and City Council member Mike O’Brien, and, in O’Brien’s case, threatening to set up camp or dump bags of garbage on his lawn. Nextdoor has not deleted most of those threatening comments, and right now, O’Brien’s address is still widely available on the site even though, as Strause says, “we don’t allow people to reveal people’s private information.”
Murray, whose home address has not yet been published on Nextdoor (although many posters have said in no uncertain terms that it ought to be), says publishing home addresses of elected officials puts them and their families at risk—for example, someone went to then-mayor Mike McGinn’s home, where he lives with his wife and young kids, and smashed his window with a rock. “To me, that isn’t helpful. It’s about building hysteria, not about building community,” Murray says.