Nextdoor’s good, bad and weird
Around the Triangle, the app is where neighbors go to share business recommendations, post neighborhood photos, and feed anxiety.
The reviews are in. The social media platform Nextdoor is a convenient way for thousands across the Triangle to connect with neighbors.
It’s also, as one resident put it, “even more of a dumpster fire than Facebook.”
Nextdoor’s hyperlocal scope helps people find handymen, furniture, lost pets, community events and connection. It’s also a podium on which neighbors make knotty assumptions, where every loud sound is a gunshot, every unfamiliar person a suspect.
Oh, and copperheads. A frequent topic on local pages is whether certain snakes are poisonous North Carolina-native copperheads, leaving repliers to parse photos of scaly crossbands and serpentine head shapes.
Nextdoor in the Triangle is a lot, residents say — positive, problematic and very popular.
Launched nationally in 2011, the neighborhood-centered social network today claims to be in one of three U.S. households and has roughly 40 million active weekly users worldwide, a 48% increase from two years ago. A Nextdoor spokesperson declined to share “city-specific user numbers” with The News & Observer, but online, the company claims to have more than 2,000 neighborhood pages in the Triangle — 959 in Raleigh, 524 in Durham, 308 in Cary, and 202 in Chapel Hill.
Nextdoor is designed to be the most local social media network. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, the platform requires users to confirm their addresses to join. Communities vary in size, with larger established neighborhoods like Raleigh’s Five Points and hundreds of smaller subdivisions from Carrboro to Zebulon.
But the social network is divisive. When asked during a recent podcast episode if he goes on Nextdoor, Raleigh’s at-large council member Jonathan Melton responded, “I try not to.”
To learn more about the platform, I reached out to Triangle residents on Reddit, Facebook and, of course, Nextdoor, to ask why people love — or hate — the site.
There was no shortage of feedback.
The good: Basic connection and returning lost pets
“I made a post about the reopening of the French Corner Bakery when that happened, and the owner told me that she had people coming in for weeks saying they read my piece online” — Robert Ray, a resident of North Durham.
“At least once a week, I get a new client who’s heard about me on Nextdoor. It’s a good place to find services or recommendations. I scroll past the other stuff.” — Jodi Schavone, owner of Decor Coach in Apex.
While many labeled Nextdoor a bastion for “Karens,” a pejorative term describing a type of middle-age, wealthier white woman who is seen as entitled, others praised the platform for enriching their sense of community.
An east Raleigh resident named Robert, who requested only his first name be published, said Nextdoor has helped him interact with neighbors “without my deafness being a factor.”
Since moving from Florida two years ago, Robert said he’s been “kind of the opposite of a social butterfly” but still likes “to engage a little bit with neighbors throughout Raleigh.” While everyone starts with their own neighborhood, Nextdoor allows users to follow other communities as well.
“It sort of harkens back to earlier iterations of Facebook,” he said. “When you were locked into your school’s network, but could (send friend requests to) friends that went elsewhere.”
Nextdoor features include a “Discover” map that displays nearby public events and community members volunteering free services, like making grocery runs for older residents. Similar to Facebook Marketplace, Nextdoor has a “For Sale” section.
Perhaps the most consistently positive thing Triangle residents said about Nextdoor was how good it was for retrieving lost pets.
“It couldn’t have happened without (Nextdoor),” Marie Robertson, a Cary resident, said of getting her orange cat Fred returned after he went missing for a month in late 2021. “The people used my real name to find me and drive to my house. I wouldn’t feel comfortable using my real name in another platform.”
And as Nextdoor has grown, governments have launched their own accounts to alert residents to sometimes vital developments.
On the evening of Oct. 13, for example, the City of Raleigh urged residents living along a section of the Neuse River Greenway to remain indoors during a fatal active shooter situation in the Hedingham neighborhood. About four hours after its initial alert, the city posted on Nextdoor that the suspect was in custody.
The bad: Community safety speculation
“I was an administrator on Nextdoor for two neighborhoods, but, well, there are people out there that are the reason we can never have nice things.” — Robert Campbell of Cary.
“I’m super bothered to know how many neighbors want to pull out guns and be judge, jury, and executioner anytime they read about someone breaking into a car or approaching their property.” — Stacy De Coster, Cary resident and sociology professor at North Carolina State University.
In its 2023 annual report, Nextdoor declared its purpose is “to cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighborhood they can rely on.” Yet many who’ve used the platform question if kindness is being fostered.
Cary resident Robert Campbell said he stopped volunteering as an administrator for his neighborhood’s page after seeing a number of troublesome behaviors, including what Campbell considered “overt racism.”
“Every Black man in a neighborhood is a threat,” he said, referring to the problematic content he saw on the platform.
To help monitor its pages, Nextdoor encourages frequent users like Campbell to volunteer as “Nextdoor Leads” to steer discussions, trumpet local businesses, and, if needed, vote to remove certain posts that may violate company policy. But Campbell found it frustrating when neighbors who had their posts erased disputed the decisions, which Campbell said he made with a committee of local Leads.
“That’s when I threw in the towel,” he said. “I don’t need this in my life at all.”
Anyone familiar with Facebook comments or Twitter replies wouldn’t be shocked that dialogue on a social media platform could devolve into problematic territory. The proximity inherent to Nextdoor, however, can make racial profiling particularly consequential.
Nextdoor has technology that flags blatant hate speech, and in 2019, the company launched a Neighborhood Vitality Advisory Board to address more subtle racial profiling on the site. One of the board members is Stanford psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt, author of the 2019 book “Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do.”
In 2021, the company implemented an “anti-racism notification” system that detects language Nextdoor believes “can be hurtful to people of color.” A screen will then pop up asking the poster if they wish to edit their language. Phrases the system catches include “all lives matter” and “blue lives matter.”
While specific language is easier to flag, Nextdoor struggles to mitigate more veiled biases, especially when it comes to posts raising safety concerns, said David Ewoldsen, a professor of media and information at Michigan State University.
Community safety is among the top reasons people log on to Nextdoor, Ewoldsen said. On its webpage, Nextdoor encourages users who want to highlight an activity as suspicious to lead with describing the unusual behaviors (not the person) and then provide complete descriptions of the people involved.
Though some safety alarms are warranted, Ewoldsen says the ubiquitous unfounded crime and safety speculation he’s seen on Nextdoor creates a distorted reality with potentially dangerous ramifications.
“When the car backfiring two blocks away all at once becomes a gun, at some point that means somebody’s going to be coming out with (their own) gun,” he said. “Then you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Ewoldsen believes Nextdoor has fed into a broader media and political dynamic that’s left most Americans believing crime is rising even when data shows the opposite.
All social media platforms contribute, he said, “but the more local it feels, the more it’s going to be scary to us.”
The weird: Vape warnings, snakes and smoldering dehumidifiers
“I’ve never thought so much about people’s opinions on dog poop in trash cans before this app came into my life.” — a Reddit commenter
Brent Brandow, a business development manager in Cary, admits he doesn’t use Nextdoor to find nearby events or lost pets. “I use Nextdoor in two ways,” he said. “To identify neighbors I wish to avoid and as a constant source of unintentional hilarity.”
In 2019, Brandow came across an Apex resident’s post listing warning signs middle school boys may exhibit if they start vaping. The signs included “taking book bag everywhere,” and “hanging out at Pizza Hut.” He submitted the warning to the popular Twitter account “Best of Nextdoor,” which shared the post to its more than 500,000 followers.
More recently, Brandow noticed someone on Nextdoor was giving away a dehumidifier with an apparent flaw. “When I last used it, it melted the surge protector it was plugged into,” the poster wrote. “PM me if you are interested. It’s a really good until (sic) otherwise.”
“With Nextdoor, you are subjected to your craziest neighbor’s rants without provocation,” he said. “Sure, you can block them, but the lunatic that thinks every loud bang is a gunshot and every snake is a copperhead now has a somewhat captive audience.”
Triangle residents said local Nextdoor users are also known for discussing a certain species of snake. According to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, adult copperheads are light brown or tan, grow to be between 2 and 3 feet, and have brown crossbands “shaped like an hourglass or dumbbell.” They are venomous and found statewide.
The question “Is this a copperhead?” frequently pops up, residents said. Some mocked these inquiries, arguing the snakes in posted pictures don’t remotely match the copperhead’s description. But other times, the snakes are definitely copperheads, including two instances in early January.
Bags of kitty litter
I joined Nextdoor two months ago to get a sense of the platform I was writing about.
This is obviously not the main reason millions of Americans sign up. The top reason, a former executive at the company told me, is for community safety.
Since joining, I’ve seen my neighbors in our small South Durham townhome community bring up “suspicious” activities in a manner that felt speculative. One included doorbell camera footage of two children looking under a parked car at night. Another described seeing a “younger man” knock on doors in a way the poster found peculiar.
There’s no evidence these people had nefarious goals, but the language used presented them as potential threats.
But I’ve also seen positive connections formed in my digital backyard, like someone finding a refrigerator repair company.
And several weeks ago, a neighbor named Johnny Clinton asked if anyone wanted a dozen bags of cat litter. Even though I have a cat, I wouldn’t have considered traveling any real distance to pick up copious amounts of free litter from a random person. But Clinton was a 30-second drive away. I reached out, we set up a time, and I met him outside his garage.
He confirmed what I had assumed: His cat had passed away.
As we loaded the bags into my trunk, we talked. He was a retired Army veteran involved in the local American Legion chapter. I told him I was a reporter and he suggested a story. We swapped phone numbers.
I got to know a neighbor. We may keep in contact. I don’t have to buy cat litter for the rest of the year.
To me, Nextdoor would be perfect if that’s all it was.
This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.
This story was originally published April 26, 2023, 6:00 AM.