Internet Exploring

The 'Best of Nextdoor' Account Is Trying to Make the Site Less Racist

When Nextdoor stated 'Black Lives Matter' while moderators censored BLM content, account creator Jenn Takahashi felt obligated to speak up.
June 16, 2020, 4:42pm
Woman calling police
Image Composition via Youtube, Nextdoor

A social media network that is a combination of Facebook, Craigslist, and neighborhood watch, Nextdoor is a platform known for its "Karen problem," and hosting busybodies more worried about property than Black people, as one VICE story showed.

Jenn Takahashi, a public relations professional, started Best of Nextdoor in 2017 when she was living in the quiet neighborhood of Glen Park in San Francisco. At the time, she was working for a PR agency and found the job very stressful. For some reason, she told VICE, browsing the silliness on Nextdoor brought her peace.

"I had this one neighbor that would complain about someone rearranging her lawn gnome every single day at 4 p.m. on the dot," she remembered. Nonsense like this, she said, "was a reminder for me to not sweat the small stuff." Later, she'd start Best of Nextdoor, a Twitter account and website meant to capture moments like these. When submitting, users are reminded to keep the subject matter light and funny. But after Takahashi saw Nextdoor's initial statement supporting Black Lives Matter, she felt a responsibility to comment.

"When they posted their statement about Black Lives Matter," Takahashi said, she was "getting DMs from followers saying their posts about Black Lives Matter are being censored. I felt like I had to speak up." Takahashi posted images contrasting the two actions from her personal Twitter account.

Nextdoor moderators, or "leads," are in charge of moderating content on the platform per neighborhood. These leads do not require any kind of training, and often, they are just the first people to sign up in a neighborhood, Takahashi explained, essentially describing a multi-level marketing scheme for a volunteer surveillance platform. "That's insane to me," she said. Takahashi, though she attempts to share lighthearted posts on the platform, is very aware of Nextdoor's problems, and said she's previously tried to bring attention to Nextdoor's partnerships with police departments.

Andrea Cervone is a Clarkston, Georgia resident and former city council member, who'd been in contact with Takahashi because she was thinking about starting a parody Twitter account of her own, to bring attention to housing issues. Clarkston has been called "the most diverse square mile in America" and the "Ellis Island of the South." Her partner, Ted Terry, is the former mayor of Clarkston, and a Queer Eye season two makeover recipient.

Separately, she'd also been scrubbing Nextdoor to research an op-ed on the topic of "public participation in cities and the idea of who gets to participate," she told VICE. What she found on Nextdoor did not reflect her community. Despite Clarkston being 80% nonwhite, and 86% of housing inventory being rentals, Cervone noticed the majority of Nextdoor users were white homeowners, and all the neighborhood leads were white, too.

"And we have had more than a few posts about 'suspicious youth' who are always Black or Brown." she said. After seeing the stories about Nextdoor censoring Black Lives Matter content, Cervone consulted Takahashi, and Cervone "set up the petition, vetted the suggestions, and the outline with several groups that work in the racial equity space," and Takahashi took on the PR.

The petition suggests racial bias training for neighborhood leads, among other demands. Similar to Facebook outsourcing its content moderation team, Nextdoor has placed this burden on its volunteer hall monitors. Cervone said Nextdoor's business model is dependent on this free labor. And now two individuals, not employed by Nextdoor, are the ones pushing the company to educate its unpaid workforce.

Though she didn't realize it when she'd started Best of Nextdoor, Jenn Takahashi found herself moderating content for a company that does not employ her, as she fields submissions from the platform to post on Best of Nextdoor. She also emphasized that her experience is "nothing compared to what Facebook moderators go through." Within a couple of months of starting Best of Nextdoor, she said, she was overwhelmed with the amount of racist content submissions, and disturbing images like dead cats and dogs, when she was simply trying to share moments of levity. She told a friend, who'd noticed these submissions were taking a toll on her, who then started "Worst of Nextdoor," and later abandoned the project because it had a negative effect on his own mental health.

Takahashi hesitates for a few beats when answering the question of whether Nextdoor needs to exist in the first place. But she provides one recent example of people doing good on the platform. A Nextdoor user offered to buy groceries for neighbors in the Nob Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, and after she shared the post, there was a "chain reaction" of other people offering to shop for their neighbors.

Cervone said there was no reason for her to use Nextdoor personally, but in her neighborhood it serves as "somewhere for the echo-chamber of 5-10 very vocal residents to vent their grievances."

Black Lives Matter protests and marches have taken place all over the world, in result of a recent cluster of Black people killed by the police. To acknowledge the news cycle, many technology companies who actively aid law enforcement, like Amazon, have released public statements supporting Black Lives Matter. But of all obligatory corporate press releases, perhaps none rang more hollow than Nextdoor.

"I'm in PR for my day job. You can't out-PR me! This is just straight-up PR," Takahashi said of Nextdoor's "statement" on Black Lives Matter, and the follow-up statement made by the CEO.

"If Nextdoor's board and CEO aren't willing to institutionalize training that would actively help their leads make less prejudiced decisions, then all the nice words they have posted about supporting Black Lives Matter are just that––words. And that's no longer enough." Cervone said.