Nextdoor Emails Show City’s Vision for Partnership

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Emails between city of Seattle decision-makers and officials at the private social-networking site Nextdoor reveal that the city planned to use Nextdoor as a key portal for delivering information about neighborhood events; distributing surveys to help determine what neighborhoods’ priorities are; and as “a smart, efficient way to educate/inform residents about SeaStat and our soon to be (officially) announced Community Policing Micro Plans,” according to an email from SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb to Jeff Reading, his then-counterpart in Murray’s office, back in October 2014.

Anyone without a Nextdoor account cannot access any of those public communications; the private site, based in San Francisco, is only accessible to members, and those members can only communicate with others in their immediate neighborhood.

In February, I reported that Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole held a “public town hall” on Nextdoor that was only accessible to Nextdoor members, who make up a tiny percentage of the city. After Nextdoor canceled, then reinstated, my membership when I reported some of the questions neighbors asked O’Toole during the virtual public meeting, along with details about her responses, the city said it would consider ending the partnership.

Since then, both Mayor Ed Murray and chief technology officer Michael Mattmiller have told me that they are working to figure out how to make communications with Nextdoor, which are subject to public disclosure laws like any city communications, more transparent, and are considering ending the partnership altogether. However, the city continues to partner with the site and provide updates to neighborhood residents by posting privately to members, who make up a tiny fraction of the city, there. Mattmiller did not return calls for comment.

In October of 2014, SPD’s Whitcomb told mayoral spokesman Reading enthusiastically, “I think we are ready to go with Nextdoor! Our plan is to tie it in to SeaStat as a community engagement and feedback tool.” Nextdoor even offered to write press releases and social media communications for SPD for the launch, though it’s unclear whether SPD took them up on the offer.

SeaStat is a relatively new program in which SPD gathers data and meets twice a month to identify and target crime “hot spots.” Community micro policing  is an outgrowth of SeaStat, which involves using data to target police patrols. Both are directly informed by the priorities to which residents on Nextdoor choose to draw SPD’s attention, as well as issues SPD identifies in Nextdoor-specific surveys. As the SPD Blotter blog put it back in 2014, “Nextdoor users will have an active role helping inform SeaStat, since officer deployment will be based not only on crime data, but also on community feedback. Look for neighborhood specific surveys on how SPD can improve community safety and police services in the near future.”

The potential issue with using Nextdoor as a barometer and guide for police deployment is twofold. First, Nextdoor’s membership  represents just a fraction of city residents; in Columbia City, for example, just a fifth of households are signed up; in Ballard, 16 percent; in Pinehurst, 11 percent; in Magnolia, 19 percent. Although it’s impossible to tell how many of those members are homeowners and how many are renters, the residents who comment tend to self-identify as homeowners, at least on the dozen or so Nextdoor neighborhood boards I’ve seen.

Using Nextdoor as any kind of gauge for where the city should focus police resources, in other words, is to do outreach to a tiny, self-selected fraction of the city, in contrast to the much broader way government agencies typically communicate with neighborhood. It’s kind of like determining city policy based on an unscientific survey posted on a departmental website on seattle.gov.

Second, as I’ve pointed out previously, the closed-loop nature of the system can lead neighborhoods to whip themselves into a frenzy over relatively minor issues such as discarded needles, “suspicious” or unfamiliar people, people living in their cars who don’t obey parking laws, and litter, without the context of what’s going on in other neighborhoods.

For example, Nextdoor members in Ballard and Magnolia routinely post photos of people they describe as “suspicious,” in some cases accusing them of specific crimes, without their knowledge or consent; tacitly condone vigilantism against homeless people they feel are creating litter and committing property crimes; and have threatened to dump garbage and human waste on the lawns of Murray and council member Mike O’Brien, who represents Ballard, one of the epicenters of Nextdoor-based overreaction. (Nextdoor members also frequently post tangents that violate the site’s ban on personal attacks, and have harassed and threatened me personally within the site itself and in off-site communications that refer to things I have written about Nextdoor.)

How much does any of this matter? In terms of city policy (as opposed to civil discourse), maybe not that much. Nextdoor is, after all, merely “another tool in the toolbox” for outreach by SPD and other city offices and departments—including, currently, the mayor’s office, the Department of Neighborhoods, Seattle Public Utilities, and the city as a whole.

And it’s not like the city doesn’t have a longstanding policy of basing policy on which group shouts the loudest—at a meeting on Monday evening, in fact, a city staffer admitted that Murray had promised to preserve most single-family zoning in perpetuity “after a big outcry from [homeowners in] the neighborhoods.”

But I do wonder: What message is the city, and Murray in particular, sending by continuing to partner with Nextdoor and using it as a tool to communicate with, and get feedback from, neighborhoods? Intentionally or not, I think they’re saying that they want to provide yet another way for a small, motivated cadre of agitated homeowners to direct and shape city policy.

25 thoughts on “Nextdoor Emails Show City’s Vision for Partnership

  1. We had a young man from NextDoor approach us at our neighborhood community council meeting to endorse and join up. I asked who owns NextDoor? Some of the attendees aswered before he did, assuming it was a non-profit. He finally admitted that it was a private business, and would not say who owns it.

    Even if we believe the NextDoor owners that they will protect our privacy, why should users believe NextDoor servers are invulnerable to hackers? Why would we believe that NextDoor won’t sell their company, and our data, to some one who maybe isn’t so careful? How do we even know they are careful?

    The whole idea of having civic officials conduct public business through a privately-owned website is creepy to me, and Erica is absoutely correct to call them out on it. The city has its own website, they should use it.

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  2. To me, the biggest takeaway from the NextDoor Ballard/Magnolia scandal is that NextDoor has an awful policy of allowing whatever brainless and unkind person might be the first person to join NextDoor in their “neighborhood” to become an admin. The clueless, racist, classist stay-at-home moms that they have allowed to rule Ballard and Magnolia NextDoor says so much negative about NextDoor. I hope NextDoor realizes that this policy reflects very badly on them and that they adjust.

    Thank you, Erica, for shedding light on this very seedy and embarrassing world. Many of us are counting the days for Seattle to end their partnership with such a mismanaged company.

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  3. Erica,
    I don’t “return again and again.” How did you establish that? Just another incidence of unfounded statements. Get a grip on yourself. Say something true for a change.

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  4. Erica, I’d say that spending your days trolling on NextDoor, scouring pages you shouldn’t have access to and poring over posts by people who don’t live in your neighborhood for the sheer purpose of trying to portray entire neighborhoods of people you don’t know as NIMBY and anti-homeless is pretty much the definition of weirdly obsessive.

    Have fun!

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  5. The whole concept of “not being able to see what’s happening if you don’t live in X neighborhood” validates all of Erica’s questions about using it as a privileged forum for interaction between the City and citizens. What if I work in X neighborhood? Or my non-Internet connected grandparent lives there? What if I commute through it on a late-night bus? There are any number of reasons citizens who don’t live within a neighborhood boundary would have an interest in seeing or participating in discussions that might influence City policy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a private forum and can be run however its owners/administrators want it to be run. Sure, I’d be interested in what people in other neighborhood have to say, but I don’t have access to those pages and understand that’s not the way NextDoor works. And I’m not about to go to the trouble of getting someone else’s login information so I can troll other sites for comments I can then take out of context to further my agenda and unfairly cast entire neighborhoods of people in a negative light, which is what Erica does.

      Following your logic, city officials should never have private discussions with anyone who might influence city policy – say, for example, advocates, lobbyists, Chambers of Commerce, neighborhood groups.

      The point is, Erica rightfully got the boot for violating the site’s privacy policy, then cried foul on the city’s participation (any comments made by city officials on Next Door would be subject to a FOIA request, which Erica surely knows, so the city’s involvement on Next Door should be no more objectionable than city officials sending emails that aren’t broadcast to every citizen). This is just sour grapes (no pun intended) from someone who was called on her bullshit, and rather than being a grown-up and acknowledging that she didn’t play by the rules, deflected and pointed the finger elsewhere.

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      • No, following my logic the City should make careful choices about how and whether “the way a private forum” chooses to run things should be a privileged or signiificant source of input into City decision-making.

        (As an obvious example, given how big a deal affordable housing is and how much is up in the air in terms of City policy going forward, anyone who used to live in a pricey neighborhood but has gotten priced out now might “no longer count as eligible to join” when arguably their input ought to count for a heck of a lot in terms of how public policy affects that neighborhood and the citizens in it.)

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      • “It’s a private forum and can be run however its owners/administrators want it to be run”

        Thanks for exactly confirming Erica’s point, QL. The City (including the Police Dept.) should not be conducting any business with public import on the Nextdoor platform. Again, it is private space masquerading as public space and i am most grateful to Erica for calling BS on this as I have been thinking the same thing for some time now.

        As a community platform, Nextdoor has also accommodated some pretty disgusting behavior in the past, profiling strangers and promoting paranoia. At one point it seemed like every black-guy-in-a-car and backfire was worthy of a red alert. Even through the lens of a guy that despises political correctness, it was too much.

        Please keep up the good work, Erica.

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  6. From the Seattle Times:

    “The review comes after Nextdoor administrators temporarily suspended Seattle journalist/blogger Erica Barnett from using the social network after they said she violated the site’s privacy policy by posting users’ comments from the Feb. 17 town hall publicly on her blog.

    After they verify a permanent address, Nextdoor users engage on forums that only people who live near them can access. Like public agencies nationwide, Seattle entered an unpaid partnership with Nextdoor in 2014 to post city news, about three years after the site’s start.

    According to Nextdoor, the site’s dedication to privacy is one of the main reasons users keep coming back — what happens in the neighborhood stays in the neighborhood — and people feel comfortable posting when only those near them can see.

    So when Barnett published a piece on her site with screenshots of Nextdoor users’ questions to O’Toole, Nextdoor quickly suspended her account, citing a site policy that prohibits the reposting of conversations outside of Nextdoor without authors’ consent.

    After Nextdoor blocked Barnett from using the site, she criticized the move and continued to question the city’s use of the social network on her blog, describing it as ‘dominated by homeowners and the whiter, more privileged parts of the city’ in a Feb. 18 post.”

    So according to the Times story, you were kicked off Next Door for violating its privacy policy by posting screen shots of members’ posts (posts you should not have had access to in the first place) without their permission.

    Your comments about Next Door being dominated by homeowners and the privileged parts of the city make your bias very clear. You have an ax to grind with homeowners. You resent anyone who lives in a better part of the city than you do. We get it. Sorry you can’t afford to live in Ballard of Magnolia. But stop making this about the city’s involvement with Next Door when it’s really about your own issues.

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    • Actually, as the quote you pulled from the Times (and my original story) notes, these were communications with O’Toole, which are in fact a matter of fully disclosable public record.

      And ha, it’s telling that you think Ballard and Magnolia are “better” parts of the city than the diverse, close-in, transit-accessible, walkable, and mixed-income area I choose to live! That says quite a lot about your POV. But at any rate, there’s no “resentment” in the very clear fact that, as I’ve documented on this blog, the largest Nextdoor communities are indeed in the more racially homogenous (white) and wealthier parts of town. Or do you not believe that race and privilege exist?

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      • Oh, there’s plenty of resentment. That’s painfully obvious. No one would go to the pathological and unethical lengths you do to denigrate entire neighborhoods of people if there wasn’t. And your laughable descriptions of “upper-crust” and “wealthy westside enclaves” (seriously, have you ever been to Ballard? do you have any clue about its origins and history? do you understand that there are low-income people living in Ballard and Magnolia?) belies your resentment and bias. You’ve had plenty of opportunities to “interview” people in those neighborhoods you’re so quick to malign, but you never bother to do that, do you?

        And so what if the largest Next Door communities are in the most homogenous and wealthier parts of town? What’s your point? That people living in those neighborhoods are therefore inherently racist and classist?

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      • Yes, the comments with O’Toole are a matter of public record. That’s true. Also true is the fact that you violated NextDoor’s privacy policy by posting people’s comments without their permission – comments you are well aware you had no right to access – and were rightfully booted for it. Don’t try to make this about some impropriety by the city. Be a grown-up and admit that you were kicked off because you broke the rules.

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    • Quinn – you can’t win your argument with Erica. You use logic, she does not. She will remove remarks which call her out. Her anger and negative vibe is what keeps this amateur blog going. Her blog is only for entertainment.

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      • It’s always amusing when people cry censorship in response to a barrage of comments (seven! by the same obsessive person on a single post!) that I have neither taken down nor threatened to remove. I only remove comments that are abusive, not those that disagree with me. This should be self-evident.

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  7. A lot of people don’t realize that Nextdoor has virtually no security controls either. I found this out the hard way when I started to receive aggressive/angry comments and private messages from a neighbor a few years ago.

    The only thing you can do when being actively harassed by another user (to disconnect yourself from that user) is to “mute” them. However, this only keeps you from seeing their content/profile — it does not prevent them from seeing yours, nor does it prevent them from being able to send you private messages.

    This was a few years ago, so I emailed them today to ask if the policy had changed. The answer was, “There really is no way of blocking a neighbor from seeing your posts. [Muting] also will not prevent them from being able to send you Private Messages and Urgent Alerts.”

    This is incredibly dangerous, especially considering the fact all the users you are interacting with live IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD. You can report a member for abuse, but abusers are often smart enough to juuuust skirt the criteria, leaving their accounts active, and you very, very unsafe. Ultimately, I had to deactivate my account to make it stop. There were no other options for me to get away from that person.

    I would never recommend this site to anyone, let alone an entire city of people who may or may not know what they’re getting into when they set up an account there. Unless you know better and deactivate this default feature when you sign up, your complete street address shows up with your profile. Combine that with the inability to block a user from seeing that profile and engaging with you, and I’m frankly surprised nobody has gotten hurt yet. This is a ludicrous way to manage a social media platform in this day and age.

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  8. I’m chiming in to offer a slightly different perspective from Rainier Beach, where I’m a neighborhood admin. Nextdoor has been a very useful tool for police to engage with the community about the recent rise in shootings and armed robberies. I don’t think our neighborhood would be as well-informed about the PD’s efforts to address this trend without Nextdoor. The neighborhood-specific platform is key for this particular issue. I hear your concerns about Nextdoor being tied to community policing efforts, but I’d rather see a move towards more broad participation in Nextdoor rather than move away from the tool completely. When I set up our neighborhood’s group (West Rainier Beach), Nextdoor covered the cost of mailing postcards to up to 100 neighbors for free. If the City could partner with Nextdoor to target people who aren’t yet members, I think Nextdoor would become more particpatory.

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  9. Complaining about NextDoor posters harassing you, after YOU repeatedly posted screen shots of their posts, including their names, on your blog in an effort to shame them and make them look bad? That is rich.

    And that’s what led to you getting banned from there for violating NextDoor’s privacy policy, not you posting about the questions O’Toole asked – posts that you should never have had access to, since you’re not a member of that NextDoor site. So stop with the lies.

    You are the very epitome of an online harasser and cyberbully, not to mention a flaming hypocrite.

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    • I approved your comment despite the fact that you engage in name-calling, which is generally off limits here, because I want to address the specific claims you make in your comment. 1) I was explicitly kicked off for posting questions posed to the police chief during the “public” town hall. In my post about that incident, I quoted the email from Nextdoor making that specific reason abundantly clear. So you are 100% wrong on that front. 2) I actually redact names, as you well know, because I do not want to want to violate anyone’s privacy. I have also begun redacting neighborhoods on the very rare occasions that I still post screenshots. The vast majority of my posts about Nextdoor are paraphrases or quotes without any identifying information. 3) I have never harassed or bullied ANYONE, online or otherwise. By your definition, saying, for example, that unidentified people on Nextdoor Magnolia are claiming that if you trip and fall you will probably get stabbed by a heroin needle (something that was actually said, and that I mentioned on Twitter), is bullying and harassment. Of whom? An entire neighborhood? Your accusation is totally ridiculous and would subject anyone who mildly criticizes another viewpoint to accusations of bullying and harassment. However, I have been threatened and harassed individually, which is a different, and much scarier, thing.

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      • BS, Erica. You have posted screen shots from NextDoor with people’s names. They’re right here on this blog, in previous posts. So please stop lying.

        You are well aware that you are violating NextDoor’s privacy policy by accessing a page you should not have access to (either by using another member’s log-in information or having people feed you posts from there), since you don’t live in Ballard or Magnolia. You cherry-pick comments and post them here or on Twitter in an effort to shame posters and portray Ballard and Magnolia residents as NIMBY’s and anti-homeless. Your “PSA to NIMBYs” tweet was a prime example of your trolling.

        And when you were rightfully booted off NextDoor, rather than acknowledging that you were breaking the rules, you cried foul and pointed the finger at the city.

        Your tactics are highly unethical, and your obsession with Ballard/Magnolia NextDoor is obsessive and creepy. It’s painfully obvious that you resent homeowners and anyone else who lives in a neighborhood you consider “upper-crust” or – as you laughingly described Ballard, a “wealthy westside enclave.” Your bias and envy is glaring.

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      • “3) I have never harassed or bullied ANYONE, online or otherwise.”
        Erica, this is so untrue, I would have thought it came from Donald Trump. You consistently belittle any group you disagree with. Your sarcastic ire is especially reserved for home owners, I’ve noticed. If you are defending all the renters who do not participate in evening community forums, then can you explain why they don’t show up rather than belittling those who do? Your commentary is disgusting and most of the time worthless. Do you pick on children too?

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      • Thanks for reading! But your definition of bullying is incorrect. I have disagreed with some people’s perspectives, which is the prerogative of a commentator. Sorry you disagree with my POV, but I question why you return again and again to comment on a blog you find “disgusting” and “worthless.”

        Like

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