.Hyperlocal Social Media Network Nextdoor Attracts Buddies and Bullies

Nextdoor, a hyperlocal social media platform, connects you with your neighbors. That sounds friendly enough. Who doesn’t want to know their neighbors’ tips about a great new restaurant or where the wildflowers are currently blooming?

All you must do in return for this neighborly service is scroll by some ads and follow Nextdoor’s rules, including “be respectful, don’t discriminate and discuss important topics in the right way.”

Anyone who took a psych 101 class could tell you how that’s going to work out. Sometimes discussions on Nextdoor breed bad behavior and downright discontent between neighbors. This is not Mister Rogers’ neighborhood.

Bullies abound on social media, and Nextdoor is not immune from their vitriol. It might even be more susceptible to aggressors because people have skin in the game when it comes to their homes and neighborhoods. Emotional issues cause folks to dig in their heels, even when connecting with the guy down the street. Though Nextdoor members aren’t anonymous, people seem to feel freer expressing themselves from behind a computer screen.

Actually, not everyone on Nextdoor is identifiable. The platform requires a user to register under their name and address, yet it apparently doesn’t always confirm the information. Some people manage to register with a fake name and address, usually to antagonize others incognito.

Online provocateurs, whether using their true names or aliases, are called “trolls” in social media parlance. My neighborhood, Sausalito/Mill Valley, recently had a troll who went by Harriet Richards. That could be her real identity, but I couldn’t find any record of such a person in Sausalito. A talented agitator, she—or he—conspicuously joined Nextdoor just after the homeless tent encampment appeared in Sausalito. Harriet mostly harassed and insulted people who posted compassionate comments about the homeless, but folks living on the water also raised her ire.

A prolific poster, Harriet usually made several comments each day. Homeless people are sex offenders and lazy, she said. Positing ideas to get rid of homeless people in Sausalito, she said the city should remove their tents and put boulders on the property to prevent the campers from pitching their tents again. She called the houseboat community a floating trailer park, which is an interesting observation considering houseboats regularly sell for well over a million dollars. Don’t even get her started on the anchor-outs, who she said don’t deserve to live in Marin because they can’t afford it. Anyone with a differing point of view is an idiot, according to Harriet, and she never hesitated to taunt a neighbor.

After others on Nextdoor reported her rudeness, she was suspended from the platform for a few days. When she returned, her conduct remained unchanged, which resulted in users outing her for not using her real identity. Finally, after three months of toxic posts, Nextdoor booted her off permanently.

Nextdoor also kicked Robbie Powelson off the site. Powelson, who lives at the Sausalito homeless encampment, never posted anything to break the site’s rules. His offense is being homeless. According to Nextdoor, if you can’t provide a residential address, you can’t join the conversation.

“Our team is in the process of figuring out how best to support and engage our unhoused neighbors,” Nextdoor Communications Specialist Shannon Toliver wrote in an email. “While we’re unable to share specifics at this time, this is top of mind for us.”

It seems that a 10-year-old social media company that has figured out how to use artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor its members should be able to come up with a way to let a homeless person join the site.

As a privately held company in a relatively new market, Nextdoor is not governed by regulations. It makes its own rules, and at times seems to enforce them indiscriminately. For instance, racial issues appear to be a gray area.

I’ve seen more than one post describing a Black person in the neighborhood as suspicious without substantiating the claim. It may come as a surprise to some residents of upscale neighborhoods that Black people live there, too. So do other BIPOC folks.

In the Tam Valley neighborhood, Yunhee Yoo, an Asian woman, posted in March about her experience walking to a nearby park with her 7-year-old son and dog. 

Two white men approached the mother and son on their walk and verbally assaulted them. The first man repeatedly cursed and referred to them as “you people.”

The second man aimed his iPhone in Yoo’s face. “You don’t belong here. I will call the police,” he yelled.

Yoo said she shared the information to let neighbors know that “racist attacks happen—even in Mill Valley.”

Many neighbors, horrified by the encounter, posted supportive comments to Yoo. Then, poof! The whole post disappeared. Nextdoor corporate removed it.

“It made absolutely no sense to remove it,” Yoo said. “It was so random. So arbitrary. I wrote Nextdoor and asked why. Rebecca [a Nextdoor corporate representative] wrote back, ‘Thank you for reaching out to us. Your post was deleted because of personal disputes, grievances and uncivil content. In the future, please refrain from trying to settle a score.’”

After Yoo’s post was removed, her husband, Axel Redemann, posted about Nextdoor corporate silencing those who have been targeted by hate. Again, neighbors rallied around the couple, this time posting negative comments about Nextdoor. The company responded by promptly closing the discussion.

Eventually, Nextdoor restored Yoo’s post, saying it didn’t violate any rules. An employee posted online that a combination of AI and human error removed it. I wonder whether Nextdoor would have reinstated the post if scores of neighbors hadn’t united around Yoo.

Given the presence of bullies and trolls, not to mention the discriminatory and Big Brother practices of Nextdoor corporate, why does anyone use the site? This week, a lost dog that jumped out of a car in Sausalito was found as a direct result of information posted on the site. Neighbors make helpful recommendations about everything from general contractors to physicians. While people struggle to schedule a Covid vaccination with the current shortage, folks share which drug stores just added more appointments.

Kristina Weber, a landscaper from Sausalito, joined Nextdoor because she received business referrals from it. She even met a few like-minded buddies on the site. However, she has also suffered the consequences of contributing to discussions about controversial issues.

“People gang up, and I have definitely been bullied, but I’ll absolutely stay on and continue to participate,” Weber said. “I’ve had some good experiences and met some amazing people on Nextdoor. Like anything in life, it’s about what you take out of it.”

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected]
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