Last year, when Hurricane Harvey brought historic flooding to the Houston area, Community Impact, a local newspaper group, asked residents on Nextdoor, a private social network for neighborhoods, to submit photos of the wreckage. Editors received scores of images and published slideshows of Sugar Land, Katy, Lake Houston, and other areas. Last month, KQED, in San Francisco, solicited photographs of Oakland community gatherings in the eighties and nineties from Nextdoor members, and inquired about how KQED could help make the Bay Area a better place to live. Before the school year began, ABC11 in Raleigh, North Carolina, offered families on Nextdoor a county-by-county list of organizations providing free school supplies.
Nextdoor, which launched in 2011, is a decidedly local network in that users must verify their identities—and residences—in order to participate. Interactions are limited by neighborhood, and the bounds are narrow; users in Washington, DC, where I live, can’t see posts from West Virginia, and a resident in the northwest neighborhood of Columbia Heights won’t see what’s posted in Capitol Hill. Like Facebook, the site has a news feed, but on Nextdoor you don’t select who to connect with so much as you are forced into contact by physical proximity—electronic compensation for our modern tendency to blithely ignore our neighbors.
The idea isn’t necessarily to make IRL friends—most users don’t even include a picture of themselves on their profiles, and Nextdoor discourages using its platform as a dating service—but to share useful information. Nextdoor is used primarily to recommend local businesses and events (26 percent of posts), discuss real estate (30 percent), and share alerts about crime and safety (10 percent), with the remainder of notifications helping people find the rightful (or new, adoptive) owners of stray animals and ask burning questions: What was the loud boom on Wednesday night at 9pm? Nextdoor incorporates the marketplace aspect of Craigslist (I bought a blender) and eliminates (some of) social media’s voyeuristic lurking. It provides the services that local newspapers, between the news section and the classifieds, once did. As with all message boards, rumor and hearsay abound, and there are some ill-considered and ignorant exchanges; according to Nextdoor, political campaigning, local or not, isn’t allowed, and personal views on controversial, non-local subjects aren’t welcome. (Discussions about controversial local topics are plentiful.) Rather than “like” or share neighbors’ posts, you “thank” them for the contribution. The company is valued at $1.5 billion.
As the network grew—it now covers 180,000 neighborhoods and about 90 percent of the 25 largest cities in the US—it was swarmed by local organizations, advertisers, and news outlets hoping to gain access. In 2014, the platform began to allow police, fire, and emergency management departments to use the platform. The idea was to keep residents abreast of crime, disaster plans, or upcoming events like town halls. (This week, before Hurricane Florence’s arrival in the Carolinas, Nextdoor added the National Weather Service for both states to its list of public agencies.) Nextdoor now collaborates with 5,000 public agencies and departments nationwide, granting them permission to see only their own posts and comments on them, not other neighborhood notices.
Last year, the same privileges were extended to news organizations. In a soft-launched campaign, Nextdoor partnered with at least a dozen local newsrooms in in the Bay Area, Texas, Detroit, Tucson, San Diego, southeast Virginia, Raleigh-Durham, and the Quad City region that straddles Iowa and Illinois. Nextdoor’s ability to drill down to specific neighborhoods could be a boon to local news outlets, especially as their monopoly on local eyeballs has diminished. (In the past 15 years, newspaper circulation numbers have dropped by roughly 30 percent.)
Among them was Community Impact, which covers Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and Phoenix, and sees that as Nextdoor’s advantage: “You have the built-in audience that wants more information about their community,” Joe Lanane, the executive editor, says. “They’ve already got the hard part done: They’ve got the crowd.” In addition to posting stories—on 911 outages, a spate of mailbox burglaries, and how to petition for an adjustment to inaccurate water bills—Community Impact and other news outlets have also been authorized to source local coverage and request tips. Lanane says his colleagues use Nextdoor to post multiple-choice polls for stories in progress—for instance, on what residents think the new name for an existing school should be. “We’ve found a level of engagement on Nextdoor we haven’t seen on other channels,” he says.
In the past few weeks, my own daily Nextdoor digest has expanded to include stories from CityLab, an urban-focused site under the Atlantic Media umbrella. The three articles I’ve seen so far begin with anecdotes about DC before branching out to larger studies or trends. As a result, CityLab’s contributions have been a bit more lofty: Rather than share reporting and research about issues my neighbors are already discussing, like the city’s voter-approved but beleaguered plan to phase out the tipped minimum wage, I’m directed to content that focuses on a wider context: the American neglect of mass transit with DC as one example, and a study based in DC about how employers discriminate against job applicants with longer commutes. CityLab is currently the sole news organization posting in DC; one can only hope that other, more local newsrooms, like Washington City Paper or WAMU, might be on the horizon. (The Washington Post is among the outlets included in Nextdoor’s pilot, but it hasn’t posted any articles or polls since January 2018.)
Even in a saturated news market like DC, you generally don’t run into reporters at neighborhood commission meetings. For that kind of news, even if it’s largely anecdotal, I turn to Nextdoor.
Most of the information you might find on Nextdoor is the kind you might see on local blogs, listservs, flyers on a community bulletin board, or on other social media. But even in a saturated news market like DC, you generally don’t run into reporters at neighborhood commission meetings. For that kind of news, even if it’s largely anecdotal, I turn to Nextdoor. Does that make the information shared here journalism? “From a point of view of media, it’s really the only thing going in so many areas,” Sandra Ball-Rokeach, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, says. Ball-Rokeach, who studies local news and its relationship to communities, embraces Nextdoor as something of a hybrid local news source. In addition to participating in Nextdoor in her own neighborhood (Cheviot Hills, in Los Angeles), she started The Alhambra Source, a local news site for the San Gabriel Valley, to help fill an existing media void. Dipping into both formats, she knows better than to glorify the focus or reportorial intentions of Nextdoor members. But reinforcing the idea of a geographic area as a community, as Nextdoor does, can create a sense of belonging, she says.
Whether or not Nextdoor will be a more successful Patch, a media property with a rocky history that operates hundreds of hyperlocal news sites across the country, by allowing local news organizations to distribute their work as well as to gather string from users, the platform is breaking down barriers between news and casual neighborhood discourse. It’s also tentatively acknowledging that journalism is a public good, one that’s part of a thriving community. As I’ve been writing this, Hurricane Florence makes its way toward the East Coast. Whereas in 2011 and 2012, during Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, I turned to Twitter for my as-it-happens news, I expect I’ll spend the next few days checking my neighbors’ updates on Nextdoor.
TOP IMAGE: Flash flooding in Atlantic Beach, NC, ahead of Hurricane Florence. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.