Nextdoor: Where Privacy Is a Double-Edged Sword

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We routinely connect with friends everywhere on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. But often, to our embarrassment and at a risk to our safety, we don’t know our neighbors. The hyperlocal site Nextdoor wants to return people to the good old days: When everybody knew who lived next door and down the block, or in the same building — the yesteryear sit-com world of Ralph and Alice Kramden and their upstairs neighbors Ed and Trixie Norton in Brooklyn. And there is great belief in the revenue potential of this folksy bid: To date, Nextdoor has raised $40.2 million, from backers such as Benchmark Capital, Google Ventures and Greylock Partners, on a valuation of at least $100 million.

Since its launch in October 2011, Nextdoor has connected people living in 14,000 neighborhoods across the U.S., adding an additional 60 to 80 neighborhoods each day, according to co-founder and marketing VP Sarah Leary, who notes that on average, Nextdoor neighborhoods have “hundreds of members” (the company won’t disclose its total national membership). While the connections on these “neighborhoods” start virtually, Nextdoor is designed to encourage members to meet up in the real world as well.

Nextdoor’s pitch is its members-only approach. As in, only the residents of a particular neighborhood can become a member of its Nextdoor digital equivalent. Non-members can’t even look at the site, much less participate in it, although the company has loosened up a bit to allow adjacent neighborhoods to connect with each other. The purpose of the privacy controls, Leary said, is to give member neighbors a “non-threatening way to share information” about things such as local events; school activities; recommendations for services like plumbers and babysitters; recent crime activity; upcoming garage sales and the like. Leary says that postings break down in representation roughly this way: 11% events, 22% civic issues, 20% crime and safety, 14% classifieds, 26% recommendations and the balance on various other topics.

To date, Nextdoor has done little to monetize its reach. Leary says that Nextdoor is putting most of its energy into building out communities and will begin competing in the $115 billion local advertising market when the network achieves critical mass. How big is that and when will it happen?

“We believe we will have reached critical mass when we have a certain penetration in a market. For example, in San Francisco we feel like we have reached penetration because 97% of the neighborhoods in San Francisco have adopted Nextdoor. When over 80% of the neighborhoods in a city have adopted Nextdoor, we feel very confident about that market,” she says.

But first, Nextdoor has some issues to sort out in whether and how much neighbors want to be walled in from other communities. In researching this story, I signed up for the service and discovered firsthand its power of engagement — but found its privacy walls a potential barrier to  connectedness throughout the Charleston community, where there are 19 Nextdoor sites and a few dozen others in the metro area.

To sign up, l entered my email address and postal address. Nextdoor informed me there was an existing site for my neighborhood of Radcliffeborough, which had been created about 45 days earlier. (If a neighborhood doesn’t exist on Nextdoor, a resident can create it and become its “Founding Member,” in effect, administrator). To confirm I was not an Internet troll, Nextdoor gave me three options for how I could be verified: By post card with unique code, phone call to a number registered to my street address in Radcliffeborough or credit card billing address matching my residence. I’m not sure, though, that Nextdoor’s verification process is any more secure than NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton’s. A friend who doesn’t live in Radcliffeborough was able to become a certified member of Nextdoor by claiming a neighborhood address that apparently wasn’t checked out.

I became Radcliffeborough member No. 30, and very quickly found myself getting more involved in the neighborhood, and getting to know residents whom I might otherwise never meet. Through Nextdoor connections, I learned about and  joined, Keep Charleston Beautiful, a volunteer group that has helped Charleston earn its “best city in the world” rating given by readers of Condé Nast Traveler.

Radcliffeborough has some “town and-gown” issues with adjacent and fast-growing College of Charleston, mainly having to do with litter, trash and housing-code violations in former single-family houses that have been  rapidly converting to off-campus apartments. This is a story that needed to be told in photos. So, accompanied by Radcliffeborough Neighborhood Association President Robert Ballard, I toured the neighborhood, and took about 10 photos of what turned about to be numerous problems at off-campus apartments, including trash dumped directly into the street, a third-floor balcony with precarious support and a tangle of exposed live wires strung to the side of a warren of apartments.

Imagining myself a 21st-century version of muckraking journalist Jacob Riis, I began putting together an illustrated article for Radcliffeborough’s Nextdoor page documenting all the problems. But I quickly learned that Nextdoor only allows one image per post. I wouldn’t be able to tell the story the way it needed to be told — in pictures that couldn’t be ignored or explained away.

But even if I had been able to upload all my photos, it dawned on me I wouldn’t be able to bring my article to the attention of the College of Charleston or the city government in an effort to get the problems fixed. Because of Nextdoor’s privacy controls, the only people who could see the post were other neighbors who were Radcliffeborough’s Nextdoor members (and one adjacent community). You won’t find a single Nextdoor post on Google or any other search site or in the world of social media.

Nextdoor is right to be sensitive to its members’ privacy, but when it erects virtual walls around each of its neighborhoods so they can’t use the site to address their issues to the appropriate authorities and the rest of the outside world, that, I submit, is going too far.