I started the Maryvale Catalina NextDoor neighborhood, in West Phoenix when I lived there. I signed up, had NextDoor send out more than 100 postcards to residents within the border I created ( a very nice, free-of-charge service that NextDoor provides to get you started.) I then used its handy, attractive template to create door knockers, which I then distributed door-to- door. I talked to dozens of my neighbors, introducing myself and telling them about NextDoor.
It was very slow going at first, primarily because so many of my neighbors speak only Spanish. But slowly, after NextDoor repeatedly extended my 21-day deadline to achieve the first 20 members, I was able to do so. It has now grown to more than 50. The Phoenix Police Department and the City itself now post to the site, about safety and crime issues, free classes and important events. It would seem a worthy and safety-conscious site.
One thing that’s crucial to understand about NextDoor is that it markets itself as a safety-first platform, with a differentiator of having to verify who you are and that you reside in the neighborhood before you are allowed to join. Additionally, each Neighborhood activity is visible only to its members, with two exceptions. Any neighborhood manager can opt to post as well to Nearby Neighborhoods, as long as those Neighborhood managers agree as well. The second exception is the fore-mentioned city governments and police and fire departments. While these folks can post to the community, they still cannot see any other activity, except those that directly communicate with them – replies and comments to their posts, that is. They cannot see what neighbors say to neighbors, nor can they buy, sell, trade, or give away items or services or recommend local merchants and service providers to community members. Those privileges are to be reserved with the verified neighbors.
I have, unfortunately, found a few worms in this differentiating safety apple. In fact, these worms concerned me enough that I left the community.
When I moved from Surprise, Ariz., to Phoenix in 2009 it was in the midst of a horrible downturn in the local (and national) real estate market. Many foreclosed single-family homes were being purchased for pennies on the dollar of their appraised values by investors who turned them into rental properties. Some of these investors hadn’t a clue about how to properly vet their tenants, or perhaps some just didn’t care to bother. I ended up living next door to just such a rental property. While that issue has been resolved, the prior tenant turned out to be – or at least we think they turned out to be – drug distributors, complete with backyard shed for rolling, growing and managing their product.
In the midst of trying to get the city and the police department and the property owner to get rid of these neighbors from hell (they finally did,) the neighbor tried to join NextDoor, under an assumed name I knew was not his own – either that or he falsified his name on the lease. Since the site couldn’t come up with verification that he did indeed belong to that address they turned to me as manager, requesting that I verify his identity. Not only did I refuse to verify him – I let NextDoor know that this man was not who he said he was, and he needed not to be a part of the NextDoor neighborhood – and why.
It wasn’t too much later that I saw that that neighbor was now part of NextDoor, noted as verified by me. (See graphic to the right which indicates “In Cognito” verified him. My notes below will explain that name I assumed, but it’s also notable that I was NOT In Cognito at the time – this info evidently updates with any name change.) I protested to two different NextDoor executives, to no avail. He’s still a member – even now, when he is not only no longer living here, and might well be incarcerated. Not only that, someone else now lives there.
At the point at which the less-than-desirable aka neighbor joined NextDoor I dropped out of the community, and let NextDoor know why. Still no change. I then decided to test its verification process further. I went on to the site and said I was Gretchen Vogel, and gave my actual address. I asked them to verify by sending a postcard to my home. They did. After that all I had to do was return it and I would be verified as the resident at my address. I did NOT return the postcard. About a week later I, Gretchen, was invited, allegedly verified, to the neighborhood.
It was then that I discovered that I could go in to my own profile and change everything – including my name. I couldn’t change my address but I could remove the actual house number and just leave it noted as street name. So I did another test – my name became First name “In” , last name “Cognito.”
The graphic below is my final NextDoor profile, live for at least one month, with a photo from Anchorage circa 1980, with the Anchorage Times building in the background.( I can no longer access this neighborhood so don’t know if it’s still live or not. ) In the foreground is a “snowperson” character from the city’s annual Fur Rendezvous parade. Clearly, it’s not me in Phoenix. What’s most notable, here, however, is the profile content that should have sent up a red flag to a NextDoor moderator at some point. I am saying that my occupation is a vampire – yet no one seems to notice or care.
Additionally, as manager of the neighborhood (despite being three different people throughout my NextDoor life) I was recently invited to verify someone attempting to join. ” Dear In, read the email.” Really? You’re writing to In Cognito? And you’re not aware something might be wrong with that? And the fact that the manager is not who she said she was when she began managing?
As I wrote what I thought were my final comments on this situation I was alerted to something in the Washington Times about NextDoor, about Gwyneth Paltrow’s neighbors being up in arms. Seems the angry neighbors took to the local NextDoor community to vent their ire, and some of that conversation ended up in the ‘pages’ of The New York Times on Oct. 10, and then the Washington Times, Fox News, and at least 10 other websites so far, along with some radio coverage. So much for NextDoor privacy.
The situation: Paltrow held a fund raiser for President Obama at her home. The President and his entourage of Secret Service were there for several hours, so the street and nearby streets were closed off – even to people who lived there and just wanted to go home.
Here’s what ended up on NYTimes.com:
“In a post on the Nextdoor Mandeville Canyon website, a private social network for area residents, Bret Lewis said that the neighborhood did not need people like Ms. Paltrow “who pay no heed to the concerns of their neighbors.”
He went on to solicit support for having Ms. Paltrow kicked out of Mandeville Canyon. “She belongs in the movie theaters, and President Obama can entertain in the Staples Center,” he said.
And then later, in the article….
Mr. Lewis, in his post, said his family ended up in a restaurant “with a bunch of other displaced residents.”
“My 13-year-old daughter broke into tears, was unable to do her homework,” he said. “We finally got home at 9:00 and my daughter was up late studying, ultimately ill-prepared for her exams.”
Kim Peterson, in another post, said residents were misled about the extent of the presidential security and the impact it would have on traffic. “The biggest problem yesterday is we did not know the Canyon would be totally closed down,” she said. Otherwise, she said, “we could have all planned accordingly.”
But in Mr. Lewis’s opinion, it was “more than poor planning, it’s an abuse of power and, most importantly, unneighborly.” “
The New York Times reporter who broke the story declined to reveal to me his source for the NextDoor material, though who disclosed it publicly matters considerably less than the fact that it was disclosed publicly. I talked to Bret Lewis who said he has no idea who shared his NextDoor conversations, but conjectured that a member of the media might be a member of the community. (I have no verification of that.)
“I posted it on NextDoor and the next thing I know it’s on the New York Times,” Lewis told me. “How it got there is a mystery to me. Shortly after I posted it it was flagged and taken down for whatever reason I don’t know. Perhaps a little too political?”
What seems clear in all this, however, is that NextDoor is not nearly as private nor safe as touted. In fact I have witnessed first hand that there are NextDoor representatives who seem not to care about that fact – or at least took no action to resolve an unsafe issue. In this latest Paltrow incident, when other media revealed that its private posts had been made public, NextDoor clearly did care.
Beyond that, there are two problems apparent:
- First, no one should be able to change their own names once verified on the site. That capability should be locked out – and perhaps even flagged if attempted.
- Content should be manually moderated, at least periodically, so that things like “occupation – vampire” and “interests- drinking blood” would be cause for concern and investigated.
The process of verification seems lacking in due diligence – some might even wonder if the process is a sham. In two separate instances I was party to a situation where unverified folks – myself as Gretchen Vogel, and my next door neighbor not as himself – were either unverified or noted to NextDoor as fraudulent. In both situations, they were noted as verified and allowed to join the NextDoor community. At best this is a horrific blunder.
NextDoor would seem less than worthy of the private, safety-conscious differentiator many have credited it as.