Lost cats! Epic snitching! Free stuff! How we became hooked on Nextdoor

Susannah Butter
·7-min read
 (Christian Adams)
(Christian Adams)

Mike has just moved to the neighbourhood and optimistically wonders if anyone has some spare paving slabs for his patio that they might be giving away, Denise has found a tabby cat roaming the streets and Gerald is concerned about a car that has been parked in a cycle lane for nine hours and 23 minutes and counting. These are just some of the posts on the Nextdoor group for Camden, where I live. There is a lot of “concern”. These neighbours, who I have never met, are particularly fixated on bin collections, cycle lanes and cats. These Mumsnet-style threads are surprisingly compelling and I’m not the only one who thinks so — one in five households have the neighbourhood app here and lockdown has led to an 80 per cent rise in use.

The cat sagas are what lured me in. The threads about missing moggies read like crime thrillers. There have been times during lockdown where I have been more invested in the fate of these felines than anything else in my life, cheering when they return. Although not everyone feels the same. One person commented: “I’m not surprised your cat went missing, your behaviour has been irresponsible. It doesn’t sound as if you deserve to have a pet.” You bet this person was called out for her views.

The fights are a highlight of looking at Nextdoor: a memorable one was when one woman asked if anyone had a spare 2020 calendar, stipulating a size for date boxes, only to be told by a neighbour paper calendars were not eco-friendly and what’s more, she was stingy. Ouch — it makes the Meghan and Harry Oprah interview look tame. This is fertile ground for those who want to snitch and snipe (and who have a lot of old stuff they can’t be bothered to take to the dump). Of course, not all neighbourhoods are the same — Swiss Cottage users include Joan Bakewell, who has made pleas for help about how to discourage her foxes (one neighbour advised male urine, another advised giving up hope of getting rid of them — Nextdoor does a good line in real talk). Psychotherapist Susie Orbach has also asked for help “classifying my recalcitrant books”. What are neighbours for, hey?

There are Nextdoor love stories — Australians Dave and Jeanette got engaged six months after meeting at a Nextdoor member event in 2019 and one Londoner and his girlfriend met talking about the NHS clap. Then there are mass gestures of kindness: last year, a woman called Hollie from Epsom who cares for 100-year-old veteran Harry was worried he would be lonely on his birthday so wrote a Nextdoor post asking for cards. Some 160 people wrote to him and others made him cakes. It’s certainly more wholesome than some of the unregulated activity on other neighbourhood forums like WhatsApp groups, which can be vulnerable to viruses and people posting porn — quite a shock to see when you’ve innocently opened it up to find out about donating to the local foodbank.

Nextdoor has networks in 11 countries and some people expect that it will sell shares next year. It was valued at £1.6 billion in May 2019 and has come a long way from when it launched in the UK in 2017 and the team of six had to handbuild the network, going door to door telling people it existed. One of its aims, as well as connecting neighbours, is to support local businesses, public services and non-profit organisations by bringing them to a wider audience. It says it wants “to cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighbourhood to rely on”. So not just venting about your neighbour’s lackadaisical approach to the recycling, then. It’s been such a hit that Facebook is now trying to provide a similar service with a network called Local.

Photograph by Gabriela Hasbun
Photograph by Gabriela Hasbun

But who is behind Nextdoor, how does it make any money and can it ever take on the social media big three of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram? Nextdoor was founded in 2008 in San Francisco by friends Nirav Tolia, Sarah Leary, Prakash Janakiraman and David Wiesen and is unusual for a tech company in that its plan was to grow slowly. It came here in 2017 after acquiring the UK local social network Streetlife (no, me neither, it was quite small) and only started including advertising on the platform then.

In 2018, Sarah Friar became chief executive. She stands out in Silicon Valley both because she is from Northern Ireland and because she is a woman. She grew up in Sion Mills, a village south of Strabane, during the Troubles, where she learned about the importance of strong communities that cross divides. Before working at Nextdoor, she was at Square with Jack Dorsey —who took her out for a memorable four-hour lunch and told her not to be afraid to fail publicly — and previously Goldman Sachs (she left because she felt she lacked purpose). She is also on the boards of Walmart and Slack. Supporting women in tech is one of her focuses — she is a co-founder of the organisation Ladies Who Launch, which brings women together to learn from each other, and at Nextdoor there is a group called Women in the Neighbourhood, to encourage women to mentor each other.

Nextdoor’s growth model is about getting users to the platform, where they are exposed to adverts. They are less interested in engagement than the amount of people and conversations being had. A former employee says the mission occasionally felt “cutesy but was generally really nice” (apart from the spats about parking spaces and the behaviour of dog owners that is).

Nextdoor’s stealthy rise has not been without controversy. In 2014, Tolia was charged over a hit and run that left a woman injured. Her lawyer said: “It’s ironic that the CEO of a company that is holding itself out as trying to promote neighbourliness flees the scene of an accident.” He served 30 days of community service over it.

There have been accusations that Nextdoor users have been racially profiling, describing people who are not white as suspicious. It has been said that it has “a Karen problem” — dominated by white women. But it has always taken action quickly when complaints have been made — in 2016, it announced that users had to submit more detailed identifying characteristics than race alone. Complaints continued and more measures were announced, with strict rules about all the details that had to be filled in. During the Black Lives Matter protests last year they got into trouble because moderators took down race-related discussion. Friar said this happened because moderators assumed they had to take down political posts. She denounced “systemic racism” and pledged to provide moderators with more resources and support.

Nextdoor’s own website is full of wholesome stories of people vying for the title of greatest neighbour — encouraging others to get the vaccine or baking for each other. Meanwhile, I’m hooked on my neighbourhood’s page, waiting for the next catfight.

Up goes the neighbourhood: the best of Nextdoor

  • This is the second time in a week that someone has put cheese on my car. Someone in this neighbourhood is a failure as a parent and raised a piece of garbage that can’t respect other people’s property. Anyone that thought this was funny when it happened last time can refrain from replying.

  • Hey, out of curiosity, does anyone know when Covid ends?

  • I saw my neighbour drive up to their house and drive into their garage with the door closed behind them. Did anyone else see this? Typically they park in the driveway. I want to keep others on the lookout for this type of thing. It makes me nervous.

  • I’m out of butter. Please drop a stick at the corner today between 2am and 4am. I don’t want to meet people, I don’t want new friends, I just need butter. Butter is important to me.

  • Bike on offer, hardly ever used, my ex-husband was busy riding other things.

  • Subject: Looking for someone to plow. Comment: “This is not a dating site.”

  • My kitten is a kleptomaniac. She is stealing shoes. If they are yours please let me know.

  • In reply to a post about a missing Newfoundland dog: “If she is new(ly) found, how can she be lost? Sorry, I couldn’t help it.” Reply: “Wow, not the time for jokes, wtf.”

From the Twitter account @bestofnextdoor

Read More

Max Chambers: from David Cameron's speechwriter to tech start-up Nextdoor

Love thy neighbour — even if they are filling your Nextdoor group with junk science and loo roll scams

Join the community: how Nextdoor app is helping to connect neighbours during Covid-19