Nextdoor, the “private social media site for neighborhoods,” announced this week that it is taking new measures to end racial profiling by its members, by explicitly (and belatedly) banning the practice and deploying new software that will bar members from posting the race of suspects when reporting crimes in its “crime and safety” section unless they provide at least two other physical identifiers, such as hair type or clothing style. (Of course, those descriptors could be “black,” “dreads” and “hoodie,” which defeats the purpose of a ban on racial profiling).
It’s easy to see how members might get around this ban. For example, because posts show up sequentially in the main Nextdoor feed, so anyone reading the site’s feed will see posts whether they’re tagged “crime and safety” or not, they might just post under a different category. Or they might skip the race category entirely, describing a suspect’s race in the “other information” box, like so:
The real problem, as with most complaints about user behavior on Nextdoor, appears to be that the company doesn’t have enough employees (or, perhaps, sufficient motivation) to actually monitor and respond to user behavior, and instead allows individual “leads”—who tend to include the most motivated early adopters in a neighborhood—to decide what behavior is and isn’t allowed in a neighborhood, as well which users will be tolerated, and which will be harassed and ostracized until they leave the site in frustration.
Predictably for a site that regularly features calls for citizen-led vigilante justice against the homeless, some Nextdoor users are already screaming “Censorship!” According to NPR, “Some residents worried the grass-roots campaign was just the PC police. [Oakland city council member] Campbell Washington [who urged Nextdoor to make the changes[ recalls people writing in with questions: ‘Why would you engage in anything that limits people’s expression? And especially people who are trying to keep their neighborhoods safe.'”
In Seattle, at least, the racial profiling changes aren’t likely to have too much impact, since most of the profiling that goes on here seems to deal with people’s perceived housing and substance use. On the front page Nextdoor in Ballard, Magnolia, and nearby neighbors at the time this post is going up, there’s a 128-comment thread going on that started with a photo of some homeless people’s belongings in Ballard, sarcastically headlined, “[Council member Mike] O’Brien’s New Street Art Installation.” In the thread: Comments calling the people who live in the park “transient bums who have seeked out and found the most coddling path of least resistance to their chosen lifestyle,” saying they are “part of a huge bicycle thievery ring,” and suggesting that “Ballard needs a vigilante problem, not an addict safe haven probem [sic].”
Recommended reading: A sociological view of Nextdoor from The Society Pages, which suggests, somewhat optimistically, I think, that by requiring users to identify people using markers other than race, the site might teach people to see others differently too.