From the Opinion Panel: Fighting toxic discourse on Nextdoor

Photo by Derick McKinney on Unsplash

Friday, April 14, 2023

Nextdoor has become an important tool for information and news-sharing, as well as the community forum for discussion on current events. Like other social media, it can also be incredibly toxic and help misinformation spread. What, if anything, can be done to improve discourse?

Aidan Reed: Don’t fear your neighbors — meet them

In its most benign form, Nextdoor functions as a community bulletin board, reminding neighbors about upcoming events, local weather or safety concerns, and offering queries about housing or activities.

Nextdoor can also serve a more odious purpose: as a hive of paranoia, anxiety and urban nightmares. As a company, Nextdoor is aware of the way in which the platform has been used to profile private citizens, including black and indigenous users who engaged in relatively innocuous posting.

One of the primary ways Nextdoor is weaponized in Boulder is against unhoused people and City Council. Among Nextdoor’s most vociferous users, the unhoused represent public chaos and City Council — particularly its most progressive members — the architects of that chaos.

The recent unhoused tent fires and propane tank explosions near Boulder High School inspired some particularly furious posts among Boulder’s most committed Nextdoor users. There is no doubt that tent fires and propane tank explosions are serious threats to public health and safety and should be prevented, but reducing public safety risks requires more than angrily fantasizing about incarcerating the homeless.

The irony of Nextdoor is that while the platform was designed to help people be more connected to their communities and meet their neighbors, it acts to atomize and alienate users from themselves and each other. Unhoused people are our neighbors, whether we like it or not. Hopefully, they will soon be our housed neighbors. But in the interim, there are more productive ways to combat homelessness and poverty than by whipping up frantic, frothing fever dreams online.

The best way to reduce the vitriolic paranoia that grips so many people on Nextdoor is for people to actually meet their neighbors, if they haven’t already.

Like other social media platforms, Nextdoor’s algorithm sorts posts chronologically, and users can see where posters are located by neighborhood, meaning that users are often interacting with people from other neighborhoods, not just their own. Nextdoor could be a legitimately useful tool for community organizing and movement building.

While Nextdoor is the preferred platform for Boulder’s angriest NIMBYs, the majority of the people I’ve seen use it do not want to place homeless people in jail or limit inclusionary zoning. Most users want to live in a safer, cleaner, more pleasant community.

To make that future possible, logging off and getting outside will be more rewarding than just posting.

Aidan Reed is a Boulder resident and an avid observer of local, state, and national politics. More about Aidan

Claudia Hanson Thiem: Moderation isn’t enough

I don’t recall why I joined Nextdoor — my profile tells me it was 5 years ago — but I largely ignored the site until recently. With a reputation for reactionary takes on local issues, it never called me as a place to find news or community.

But the fact is that Nextdoor is shaping conversations amongst neighbors and local leaders, with effects that reach beyond its active membership. We ignore it at our peril.

Nextdoor’s own approach to combating misinformation, harassment and other toxic behaviors leans heavily on local volunteer moderators. And while there are good resources for folks doing the job in good faith, it’s not enough. (Disclosure: I’ve been part of the local review team since January).

Community moderation can remove the most misleading and abusive posts, but it’s not effective when hostility is pervasive, nor can it match the pace of posting on the most heated threads. And reviewers have no tools, aside from posting directly in a thread, to address misinformation on local topics.

I’m coming to the conclusion that simply eradicating the bad is not possible. People who want to see better discourse on Nextdoor need to provide a counterpoint. That doesn’t mean arguing, per se, but rather modeling and seeding the kinds of conversations we want more of.

We can ask for and provide data and resources. We can own our biases and biographies — use the “I” statements that are so important to relationship-building — and push others to do so as well. When conversations can’t be rescued, we can start our own, on our own terms. Be the person who posts.

All of that is a tall order for me, a confirmed introvert, even as a person who looks a lot like Nextdoor’s core audience: white, middle-aged, homeowning. There’s plenty of space for pushback to get charged and personal before it violates the rules. Engagement (and recovery from it) takes time and energy. And in the virtual world, there’s no social penalty for passive listening. Nobody knows if you simply throw up your hands and log off.

There will always be people who rise to this work more naturally, and I am grateful for them. But anyone on the platform can support a skilled leader.

For better or worse, Nextdoor is shaping our community conversations, and we should recognize, amplify and lift up the people doing it right. It’s not enough to just report the abuses.

Claudia Hanson Thiem lives, parents, and (mostly) lurks online in Boulder. Her Nextdoor neighborhood is surprisingly quiet, so she may be moderating discussions in yours. More about Claudia

Teddy Weverka: We can all get along

Nextdoor allows us to microcast messages to the neighborhood with slightly more anonymity than face to face communication. Anonymity is not the intent; the intent is to use real names and to efficiently get messages to others within a handful of blocks of where you live. What could be more friendly?

It appears that most of the messages fit the intent. You can go to Nextdoor Martin Acres, for example, and find posts offering home and yard services, pet questions and issues, free stuff, or lost and found. From the above link, you can click on any Boulder neighborhood to see what goes on there. Boulder’s various neighborhoods all seem to have similar chatter.

But there is a class of messages that are not microcast. These are broadcast to many of Boulder’s neighborhoods.

It is in these messages where the friendly tones break down. Perhaps people feel more anonymous when speaking citywide, or perhaps it is the nature of issues that get broadcast. The broadcast messages currently generating friction on Nextdoor are either about crime or about camping.

Boulder is a progressive city, within which we should have reasonable disagreements. Liberals disagree on what to do about these issues. But for some, the response to expressing concern about crime or camping is the circular firing squad.

I wrote an op-ed criticizing members of the city council for dismissing the data that shows that crime is up in Boulder. I also wrote an editorial saying we should keep the camping ban and increase the resources we provide to shelter the homeless.

These liberal positions should not inspire vitriol. But for some on Nextdoor, the above positions are insufficiently progressive and will get you called NIMBY or racist; sometimes, they will even get you labeled as a conservative.

No one is influenced by name calling. Dismissing anyone who disagrees with your solutions as selfish gets us nowhere. Getting to consensus requires compromise. And that, in turn, requires us to understand what lies at the root of others’ concerns. In that common root, we find understanding.

Before the internet, we got to know our neighbors seeing each other on the sidewalks. We still do this in my sparse, walkable neighborhood. We have an annual summer block party, and an annual apple-pressing party. There is no substitute for face-to-face get-togethers. We would all do well to remember that we are all nextdoor neighbors.

Teddy Weverka lives in Boulder where he enjoys practicing science and photography and keeping backyard chickens. More about Teddy


2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I was banned from Nextdoor because I confronted those who trashed the homeless with gusto. I have a neighborhood mailing list so Nextdoor is no longer needed and I can do without the bias of the “moderators”.

  2. Quite a bit of bias baked into the above posts. If unhoused people who arrived from Aurora last week are our “neighbors” then everyone is our “neighbor” and the word “neighbor” no longer means anything. I don’t think any significant number of people are opposed to legal camping, so “crime or camping” is redundant, since the only “camping” people oppose is illegal camping, which is, also, a crime. If people don’t like the possibility of illegal camping the solution is to change the laws, not to ignore them. The strenuous efforts to delegitimize concerns of people who disagree with you contribute just as much to “toxicity” as anything else.

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