Nextdoor’s Digital ‘Block Watch’ Proving to Be Problematic

Nextdoor

Decorating a window of the house I grew up in was a sign like many others in our quiet part of town: Neighbourhood Block Watch. The idea was simple. If an area child felt unsafe or needed help, they could knock on our door. Presumably my parents would look after them until they could reach the child’s parents. Not that the streets of Coquitlam, BC, were very mean in the early ‘90s. I feel like I grew up in a relatively safe city. But the Block Watch signs, complete with smiling anthropomorphic houses, added to a feeling of community, safety, neighborliness.

Nextdoor is an attempt to create that same connectivity in local neighborhoods across America, albeit for the digital age. It’s a self-described “free private social network for your neighborhood community.”

Charming.

Although it sets its sights high, Nextdoor has unintentionally allowed discriminatory sentiments to foster online. Despite the interracial friendships that appear on its homepage splashes, keyboard heroes have felt safe to sling racially charged words at minority groups. They’ve also taken to promoting animosity against homeless people.

Nextdoor, We Have A Problem.

Like the Block Watch signs of my youth, Nextdoor began as a wholesome idea. Neighbors can connect with each other to promote a community garage sale, clean up a section of town, or take the local city councilor to task.

In the process, however, the online platform has made it easy for householders to lobby complaints against their area’s homeless population, whether warranted or not. This negativity spreads like wildfire, gaining momentum with each successive complaint.

Search your own neighborhood and see whether anyone is discussing “problematic” homelessness.

“While I have sympathy for being homeless, I think it’s time for tough love,” argues one user in Portland, Oregon. Another user in LA also assures readers they “have empathy for the homeless. But calling trash personal possessions is ridiculous.” After a user posted a picture of their stolen bike, one neighbor suggested: “[Check] the homeless camp.” (Nextdoor forum quotes thanks to OneZero.)

Other online platforms have similar issues with nurturing negativity against one minority group or another. What makes Nextdoor particularly culpable is how limiting and exclusive it is. In her paper criticizing the Nextdoor app, Katie Lamright notes that “unlike most social media, Nextdoor’s premise is on limiting, rather than expanding, a prospective social network. This manifests in some seemingly innocuous quaintness … going by first name, ‘thanking’ in lieu of liking … but the exclusivity simultaneously fosters discriminatory practices that are baked into the very structure of the app. It’s like a gated internet community.” Significantly, you need to have a verified address to sign up. The unrepresented tend to bear the brunt of louder voices.

Online Mob Mentality Mobilizes in Berkeley

Words and stones may break my bones may be one way to approach the troubling sentiments fanning anti-homelessness flames on Nextdoor. Of course, these sentiments didn’t originate on Nextdoor. But these “words” can have real consequences for very real homeless people.

Take what happened in Berkeley, California, as a case in point. Mike Zint is well-known for his outspokenness about the city’s homelessness. He heard that he was being demonized online, so he signed up for Nextdoor using a fake address. “I was accused of drug use, theft, and being a criminal. I was mentioned by name, and most of what was being said was lies.” The fallout was quick. “Nextdoor kicked me off because they found out I’m a homeless man.”

Mr. Zint himself offers a suggestion on how Nextdoor could manage this growing antagonism better. “You have to have a living, compassionate person [who] understands, and put in rules that says this will get you banned. It needs to be controlled.”

Moderating social media content isn’t a new idea. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are constantly being taken to task over the need to moderate and have made positive changes in this regard. Nextdoor should take similar steps to moderate content and users.

If neighborhood social media platforms like Nextdoor are left unchecked, Barbara Brust, founder of Berkeley’s Consider the Homeless, is concerned fear mongering could affect how the housed view homeless people. “My biggest fear is that [Nextdoor posters] are influencing people on the fence to be against homeless [people].” And that push might be the difference between online flaming and targeted arson against a tent city.

Nextdoor

Image courtesy of Nextdoor. Discover your neighborhood. You might not like what you see.


Micah Bertoli

Micah Bertoli

  

Micah Bertoli is a Medical Laboratory Technologist and freelance writer. He is passionate about volunteer work, spending much time helping displaced people settle into their new environments.

Related Topics



Your support can create amazing change

Join the campaign to end homelessness by supporting the only newsroom focused solely on the topic of homelessness. Our original reporting — posted five to seven days a week — can also be found on Apple News and Google News. Through storytelling, education, news, and advocacy, we are changing the narrative on homelessness.

Invisible People is a nonprofit organization. We rely on the support of friends like you — people who understand that well-written, carefully researched stories can change minds about this issue. And that’s what leads to true transformation and policy change. Our writers have their fingers on the pulse of homeless communities. Many are formerly or currently homeless themselves. They are the real experts, passionate about ending homelessness. Your support helps us tell the true story of this crisis and solutions that will end it. Your donations help make history by telling the real story of homelessness to inspire tangible actions to end it.

Your donation, big or small, will help bring real change.

DONATE NOW



Get the Invisible People newsletter


RECENT STORIES

17 Years in the Military to 10 Years Homeless in Los Angeles

Bob

Van Life NOT by Choice: Elderly Homeless Woman Needs Housing

Cindy

homeless man in venice beach

Derrick

los angeles homeless man

Daniel


RECENT ARTICLES

veterans row

The True Price of Freedom: A Look at Veterans Row

homeless in Phoenix Arizona

DOJ Probing Treatment of Homeless People by Phoenix Police Department

Donel Wheeler

Youth Who Experienced Homelessness Authors Two Books

property rights for homeless people

Federal Court Rules Homeless People Have Property Rights

Get the Invisible People newsletter