BY ADAM ROSEN
Some days, after I’m finished slapping myself in the face or watching Donald Trump tweet in real time, I’ll pop onto Nextdoor to really take my punishment. For the unfamiliar, it’s a social network for neighborhoods. Each member must verify, via mail, that they live at their address. While there are millions of Nextdoor users across the country (and now even in Europe and Australia), every account is linked to a defined geographic area, including a user’s own neighborhood and adjacent ones.
In theory, the setup is meant to create a more harmonious online environment. The people you’re interacting with, the thinking goes, aren’t anonymous trolls: They’re real people you might interact with IRL.
In reality, Nextdoor suffers from the same problems every social network does — possibly even more. Many of the posts are useful, offering matter-of-fact neighborhood news, doctor or vet suggestions, information on street closings (and discolored water), break-ins and, of course, bear sightings. But too often, in my experience, far from encouraging “neighborly” (i.e., respectful and charitable) exchanges, it plays host to conflict and petty grievances, particularly when the topics are local businesses or organizations.
The sin of Sysco
Judging from some residents’ behavior on the platform, many users are far from the local boosters they — and people across Asheville — often love to claim they are. In fact, this essay idea came to me after observing how a few new (and, in my view, much-desired) locally owned restaurants that recently opened in my neighborhood have been subjected to trivial and often baseless complaints among legitimate ones about parking and the like.
One representative commenter, after providing a mediocre review of one of the establishments, which is their right, offered the real j’accuse: an insinuation that his dessert was from Sysco, the massive food service company and Asheville’s version of the boogeyman. I found myself wondering: Is that in itself a reason not to visit the restaurant? And if the dessert were, perhaps, made of artisanal, unicorn-kissed, hand-milled non-GMO flour, would this person be happy to pay double the price for it, or would they be publicly slamming the establishment for being a rip-off (on Nextdoor, of course)? More important, is this the most constructive way to offer public feedback about a local and presumably hardworking hospitality business? I’m well into my 30s, but I’m old enough to remember when you either went to the manager with a complaint or shrugged, went on your way and took your business elsewhere.
I don’t think restaurants or any service-oriented businesses open to the public should be free from criticism; far from it. A fair, well-reasoned review, whether by a professional or not, can be valuable. And, of course, legitimate instances of sketchy behavior, discrimination, harassment or lawbreaking should be exposed. But many of the comments on threads about new places in the neighborhood seem speculative and needlessly nasty. Another commenter on the same thread as the one discussed earlier, grousing about another issue at the same place, all but invited like-minded readers to put it out of business for its perceived sins: “Bad ratings = less business. Less business = … well y’all know.”
I have no connection to the establishments I’m referencing or anyone who works there. I enjoy some of them, and others I can take or leave. Regardless of how I feel, though, I don’t want to actively work toward their failure — as I believe the types of commenters I describe above are doing, even if unintentionally — just because they don’t meet my obviously impeccable standards.
From bad to wacky
Actually, these sorts of comments, unreasonable though they are in my opinion, aren’t the worst of the bad behavior on the site. Since it started expanding in popularity in the mid-2010s, there have been numerous instances of racial profiling on Nextdoor sites across the country; things got serious enough that in 2016, The New York Times published a story (avl.mx/6em) about the problem. (To its credit, the site seems to have taken measures to make profiling harder. )
Additional examples of Nextdoor users behaving badly overfloweth, especially on Twitter. One of the most biting accounts, Next door in Silicon Valley (avl.mx/6eo), chronicles the inexhaustible ways people are fighting private and public housing development in one of the most expensive (and liberal) areas in the country. The tone on various Bay Area Nextdoors has gotten so ugly that a regional paper, the San Jose Mercury News, felt compelled to report on it this year (avl.mx/6ep). In one case The Mercury News highlighted, anti-development “neighbors” began going after an artist who organized in favor of a mixed-income housing development, “attacking her and her organization, calling [her organization] a ‘developer front.’ Someone called her a ‘moron,’ and then accused her of being the ‘free speech police’ when she reported it to Nextdoor.”
Speaking of which, if the city decides to follow through with its forward-thinking “Living Asheville” plan (avl.mx/6eq), which would convert several sprawling, underutilized surface lots in prime, public-transit-linked areas of the city, including my own, into moderately dense housing and retail corridors, I almost expect a similar cage match to break out online.
Less serious, and much stranger, are the Nextdoor parody accounts. The Best of Nextdoor, which also lives on Twitter, is well, the best of the bunch; little wonder it has about seven times more followers (246,000-plus) than the official Nextdoor handle. Its sole purpose is to call attention to the wackiest posts and items offered for sale on Nextdoor sites across the country. In July, it tweeted a screenshot of a post made by a visitor to the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif. “Possible cult activity at Nixon Library,” the concerned netizen titled the post, including with it a covertly taken picture of a man at a computer (avl.mx/6er). “I watched this man stare at photos of [actor] Gary Busey and print them off. I do not know what his agenda is, but I have a feeling it could be a cult or illuminati related.”
Can we rise above?
True, none of this weirdness and conflict is all that surprising. Everybody’s a critic and/or a Gary Busey conspiracist, and this is the World Wide Web — pick your cliché. Other local online groups (West Asheville Exchange and Asheville Politics come to mind) are often filled with the kind of toxic drama that sucks up 40 minutes of your day and leaves you with the unshakable feeling that humanity is doomed. But WAX has over 35,000 members, making it a near certainty that bickering will break out, and political discussions will always be charged, especially today, especially online.
Nextdoor, though, purports to be different. So much for the popular Nextdoor mantra, “When neighbors start talking, good things happen”; a more accurate one might be, “When judgmental locals start talking, local places get unfairly dissed.” Then again, maybe it’s not really Nextdoor’s fault. Maybe not being our worst selves online is simply too much to ask for, even on behalf of our beloved “neighbors.”
Adam Rosen is a freelance writer and book editor who lives in Asheville.