Murray Reconsiders Nextdoor Partnership, Cites “Hysteria” in Some Neighborhoods

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Nextdoor city strategist Justine Fenwick presents letters of recognition to Mayor Murray and Police Chief O’Toole; photo via Nextdoor blog.

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This afternoon, Mayor Ed Murray told The C is for Crank that he has ordered a formal review of the city’s year-and-a-half-old partnership with the San Francisco-based private social media site Nextdoor, in light of both the fact that they suspended my account when I reported on questions Nextdoor members asked Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole (my account has since been reinstated), and the general atmosphere of “hysteria” about crime on some Nextdoor neighborhood pages, including those serving Magnolia and Ballard.

Also today, Nextdoor officials said they would reconsider their privacy policy for participation in online conversations with elected officials like O’Toole’s “Nextdoor Town Hall” after I and others pointed out that, under Washington state disclosure law, all communications between city officials like O’Toole and members of the public are, with very limited exceptions, a matter of public record.

“My first concerns, before your post went up, had already come up as a result of the Magnolia and Ballard lists, where some individuals were working themselves into a paranoid hysteria… and becoming more scared and more isolated,” Murray says. “I was already wondering, What the hell’s going on here? Why, suddenly, when we’re having crime stats going down in the city overall, are we seeing a huge uptick in people absolutely freaked out about crime? There are some indications that the complaints about crime may be more related to social media sites than the neighborhoods that actually have crime.”

“I think we need to ask ourselves whether this is the best tool to communicate about public safety,” Murray says, adding that he has asked his office “to dig into” whether Nextdoor’s closed-door policies violate public disclosure rules as well as whether the city will pull out of the partnership altogether.

“We need social media tools that build community, not drive people into a paranoid delusion because they think people, say, delivering mail are somehow” criminals, Murray says. “That is not how you build community.”

Gordon Strause, head of Nextdoor’s neighborhood operations team in San Francisco, told me that after I pointed out that communications with public officials are public (and after Nextdoor reinstated my account) “we realized … it’s not clear, really, that those can be private conversations. We’ve created this expectation [of privacy] with members, so we need to communicate with them—we don’t want them to think we’re doing one thing when we’re doing the other.”

However, he says the solution Nextdoor is considering is to hide users’ names when they respond to city officials (who can post on all Nextdoor pages thanks to the partnership), as opposed to simply updating their terms of services so users know their communications with the city are public. “Replies [to city officials’ posts] are typically not public in our ecosystem,” Nextdoor spokeswoman Kelsey Grady adds.

Of course, a larger issue is that Nextdoor has tens of thousands of subscribers in Seattle, and it’s unrealistic (if not unreasonable) for all of those subscribers to assume everything they share on Nextdoor will stay on Nextdoor. When Nextdoor members say something outrageous—say, that the homeless should be rounded up and sent to the outskirts of town—some other Nextdoor member is likely to pass it on outside the network, even though that means breaking the vow of silence implied by a literal reading of Nextdoor’s terms of service. Even Strause acknowledges this: “I don’t think we have any illusions that people never forward messages to friends. I’ve done that.” But, he adds, “There’s an implicit understanding that when I do that, I know the person wouldn’t have an objection to it.”


The problem is that it’s the things that are most objectionable, that Nextdoor members wouldn’t be willing to say in public, that most need to be heard by the wider public, which is another way of saying that those things are newsworthy.  Take this feature from last year in the East Bay Express, which deftly and thoroughly exposed the rampant use of Nextdoor for racial profiling in majority-white neighborhoods in Oakland. None of the information about the ways in which white homeowners were targeting their black neighbors would have come to light if some of those neighbors hadn’t been willing to break the vow and out the others.

Strause and Grady say Nextdoor doesn’t monitor individual city or neighborhood sites. That task is left up to neighborhood “leads,” volunteer moderators who use their discretion to decide which posts to delete and which to let stand. This leaves the tenor of each neighborhood group very much in the hands of the lead, and, predictably, many Nextdoor members have told me they’ve been banished or had posts deleted because their lead didn’t agree with their point of view.

“We really are just a conduit for people to discuss the issues that matter in their communities,” Grady says.

Right now, Nextdoor members are using that “conduit” to reveal, or threaten to reveal, the home addresses of elected officials including Murray and City Council member Mike O’Brien, and, in O’Brien’s case, threatening to set up camp or dump bags of garbage on his lawn. Nextdoor has not deleted most of those threatening comments, and right now, O’Brien’s address is still widely available on the site even though, as Strause says, “we don’t allow people to reveal people’s private information.”

Murray, whose home address has not yet been published on Nextdoor (although many posters have said in no uncertain terms that it ought to be), says publishing home addresses of elected officials puts them and their families at risk—for example, someone went to then-mayor Mike McGinn’s home, where he lives with his wife and young kids,  and smashed his window with a rock. “To me, that isn’t helpful. It’s about building hysteria, not about building community,” Murray says.





22 thoughts on “Murray Reconsiders Nextdoor Partnership, Cites “Hysteria” in Some Neighborhoods”

  1. Although quite true, forget the characterizations and forget the behaviors. The problem is more basic: Nextdoor is private space masquerading as a community space, as evidenced by banning the “Crank” when she engaged in some truth-saying. (An analogy is the “Lifestyle Mall”. Try organizing a protest there and see how quickly private security will shut you down.) There is nothing you can do to change the model and The City should not be conducting any business on the Nextdoor platform.

  2. Does the Mayor think that calling people hysterical and paranoid is a good way to build bridges?

    Does he think that crime will decrease if it is not discussed among neighbors?

  3. Does the mayor hope to “build bridges” by calling people hysterical and paranoid? Does he think that crime doesn’t exist if it’s not reported?
    NextDoor is a good source of local info, overall. There are always cranks on but there are moderate voices too.

  4. If it were just car prowls, we wouldn’t be in such a frenzy about it. We’ve lived with those for years. The fact is that in the last few years, the heroin epidemic and homelessness problems (which are interrelated) have moved into Magnolia, Queen Anne and Ballard in a big way. While people might say “those have been here all along; you’re just now seeing it,” is that any reason for us to be less concerned about the public health hazard and associated crime that go along with it?

    A few days ago they finally cleaned up the encampment under the Magnolia bridge – after a woman was brutally murdered there last summer and a resident set fire to a tent last week. The mess was unbelievable:

    If you want to call our concern for this kind of thing “hysteria,” feel free. I think we’ll own up to that if it means that something can actually be done to improve the situation for the entire city of Seattle, Magnolia/Ballard/Queen Anne included.

  5. I now live in Everett and subscribe to nextdoor, There’s a lot of addiction, homelessness, mental illness and petty theft around here. Despite that, my community’s site is usually very respectful, without sensationalism and most members are truly looking for answers rather than bickering. Our lead only removes comments after gently reminding people to be respectful and giving them a chance to redeem themselves by removing their comment on their own, I’m sorry Seattle (my old hometown) has such problems with the site. One thing I’d like to add; as much as I dislike him I believe anyone should be left with the option of not showing their address. I don’t include mine only because there may be lurkers who may see a post they dislike and retaliate against me…or I may say something about my home or what I may have recently bought. Good luck to all of you.

    1. I don’t think it’s coincidence that these problems are worst in neighborhoods of significant wealth and privilege.

  6. 1) not all crimes show up in their statistics. You can’t report a car break in if there is no loss of property. It happens all the time, but not reported.
    2) I rarely see much of the crime posted on Next Door as being reflected in the Seattle Police crime statistics. Sure murders may be down. But neighbors on Nextdoor are talking about crimes that more directly affect them.
    3) Anyone can find anyones address. O’Brien’s campaign posters has his address. This is a completely unfair complaint in this story. There are endless resources online for free to find their addresses. It is not a “secret”
    4) why is the major wasting his time worrying about Next Door? Not enough else to do?

  7. Another example of the Mayor following and not leading. Responding to the voice of the moment to “fix” an apparent wrong doing of the City based on 1 biased view. The City used NextDoor for a reason, is that reason no longer valid? If the Mayor actually thinks residents in Ballard and Magnolia are “working themselves into a paranoid hysteria… and becoming more scared and more isolated”, he should look on a map, find out where these neighborhoods are, and visit and talk the these residents. Reading comments on a website to portray residents of neighborhoods as “scared and isolated” is lame, something Erica would do. The city needs better leadership.

    The city also needs better journalism covering facts and data, not biased opinions to create made-up tensions between neighborhoods, social classes, races, SFH owners/renters, families and single residents, car drivers/bus riders, and whatever other battles can be “exposed”. This blog is entertaining, not much more.

  8. When Seattle is no longer in the top 5 property crime cities in the nation, then homeowners will relax. It’s an embarrassment and the city refuses to address it. If I moved here from CA or Detroit or Chicago or anywhere else I’d be pissed about it too.

      1. Oh dear, autocorrect wrote rims when I meant runs. But… it’s on point, so let it stand.

      2. That is not sarcasm. Property owners care about people breaking into their cars and homes, not how often gang members manage to kill one another.. When your police can’t keep a community like Magnolia from having daily car prowls, you deserve all the “hysteria” you get. If you’re lucky you’ll stay out of the national news. Seattle even has more violent crime than LA now, but hey, the overall number is dropping!

  9. It’s really nice to see the Mayor call a spade a spade so unambiguously, and not retreat into the politicians habit of bland platitudes about improving the dialogue. Angry, hysterical bigots are just that. You can’t stop those kinds of communities from forming, of course, but you sure as hell don’t have to give them any official sanction or respect.

    Nextdoor provides a nice service in my neighborhood, and people are generally decent. Why they seem to think their business model requires them to try to protect nasty bigots and bullies from public exposure. There are probably lots of people who’d be more inclined to use the service if it wasn’t so overrun by such nasty people.

  10. My goodness, of all the things to get worked up about, you choose this. With all the bad in our city and the world it’s so sad to see you work against people that are trying to do good. Just as Pope Francis told Donald Trump, true Christians don’t build walls, they build bridges. You should be trying to make this service better and stronger, in collaboration, not trying to tear it down. You have lost your way, God willing, I hope you find it.

    1. The pope is a low energy loser who cares what he thinks. I like popes who don’t get captured.

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