Nextdoor as a kinder, community oriented social media platform and still looking to make money

Nextdoor wants to offer more positive content but is also trying to figure out how to increase profits:

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“We actually have data that shows that in the short run, toxic content absolutely drives more engagement,” Nextdoor Chief Executive Officer Sarah Friar said in a recent interview. “But over a six month period, it drives down overall engagement.”

It explains why the company chose the ticker KIND when it went public on the New York Stock Exchange last year. Nextdoor wants to distinguish itself from social media peers like Twitter Inc. and Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook as a friendly, down-to-earth platform that fosters connections between real neighbors, not anonymous trolls and scammy bots. There’s also local utility: Users can find a couch to buy, a plumber to fix a leak or a barbecue to attend…

The strategy has not translated into profitability for Nextdoor, which reported a loss in 2021 on revenue of $192.2 million, almost all of it from advertising. Friar says the company is in “investment mode” with plans to expand abroad in the UK, Germany, France, Canada, Denmark and Australia. It’s ramping up marketing and trying to figure out a way to capture more small businesses beyond the 30,000 that currently advertise on the platform. The company is focused on the hyperlocal, but large national advertisers are still how it makes most of its money.

But Nextdoor is competing for those accounts with advertising behemoths, and its users are still older and whiter than other social media networks, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Its $51 million in first quarter revenue is a 48% year-over-year jump, but a blip compared to advertising giants like Meta and Twitter, which posted revenues of $27.9 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively. Frontdoor Inc., a platform for home services and repairs, and Yelp Inc., both eclipsed $250 million for the quarter. Unlike Nextdoor, all of them have been profitable. 

This description of the platform raises multiple questions. Here are a few in my mind:

  1. Is profitability in the social media space now inextricably tied to anger and provocative content?
  2. Platforms offer different affordances, features for users and groups to utilize. How much can these features specific to different platforms tame negative content and behavior or is this a problem endemic to social media or society at large?
  3. Can a social media platform be more of a public service than a profitable private company?
  4. Once a social media platform has an established base – other parts of the article discuss Nextdoor’s appeal to suburbanites interested in crime and safety – can it actually change audiences and purposes?
  5. What happens if Nextdoor is acquired by another tech or media company?

As a Nextdoor member, I will keep my eye on this.

Fewer people out and about in cities in 2020 so more people were victims of crime?

A working paper tries to put crime in the recent context of fewer people moving around cities in 2020:

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Each of these metrics basically reports the same thing: A huge and prolonged decrease in the total number of hours people spent out and about in the American city. This decline peaked in April 2020, but urbanites stayed sedentary throughout the year, relative to 2019.

For crime data, the duo used statistics from New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, which enabled them to sort for violent crime that occurred in public—a category that included streets, parks, alleyways, commercial establishments, and offices.

The results: From March to December, 2020, public violence in the three cities was 19 percent lower than it had been in 2019. But when put into the context of how little Americans left the house that year, that data takes on a different significance. In April, for example, violent street crime fell by 30 percent—but the risk of being a victim of such a crime rose by almost 40 percent. A similar pattern held for the whole year: Even as street crime fell, the risk of being a victim of a crime rose between 15 and 30 percent over the previous year, depending on which measure of “outdoor activity” was used. In short, if you spent time in public, you were more likely to be robbed or assaulted in public in 2020 than in 2019.

For what it’s worth, that risk remained very, very small: 12 violent crimes per million outdoor hours, or more than 80,000 safely-spent outdoor hours for each violent crime.

This is an interesting way to think about perceptions of crime: even if fewer crimes were committed, they might feel like more if there was less activity. This reminds me of some of the images going around from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic of empty streets and cities. Once busy places simply did not have people. How did this affect perceptions of safety in public settings?

Would the same idea apply to media reporting on crime: because of a lack of other public activity (beyond COVID-19), did crime receive more attention even if there were fewer crimes? Perceptions of crime might be more important than the actual statistics themselves. Americans can be fearful even as numbers go down.

Americans love driving and this impacted the work of police

A country built around driving leads to profound effects on what police do:

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It is not an exaggeration to say that police power in the United States is built around the unique conditions created by car culture, in which virtually everyone is breaking the law all the time—with occasionally severe consequences. In her book Policing the Open Road, the legal scholar Sarah Seo points out that mass car ownership prompted a wholesale reinterpretation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects us against search and seizure. Or it did, until we all started driving everywhere.

Police often abuse this authority to perform “pretextual stops” hoping to find guns or drugs, knowing that trivial traffic violations give them the power to search citizens at will. Officers have at times undertaken this constitutional sleight of hand with explicit federal endorsement, deputized as foot soldiers in the war on drugs. In one of the most notorious examples, police in Arizona used traffic stops to enforce federal immigration law.

For Black drivers, pretextual traffic stops—per Jay-Z, “doing 55 in a 54”—are a routine occurrence and the foremost symbol of racial profiling in this country. For many police departments, these violations are used to fill government coffers and prompt devastating cycles of fines, debt, suspended driver’s licenses, and jail time. Black drivers are 20 percent more likely to be stopped, according to a study last year, and almost twice as likely to be searched.

While the article is about speeding, there are numerous additional areas where police work intersects with driving: stops for all sorts of reasons (as noted above), dealing with crashes or road conditions, escorting important people, and police driving the same roads as everyone else in order to address an issue at a particular location.

In many parts of the United States, it would be hard to imagine police without a vehicle or not interacting with vehicles regularly. Even the community policing idea where police spend lots of time in the same community and at the pedestrian level may still require using a vehicle to travel back and forth or to address particular issues they encounter. The sight of police on foot, horse, or bicycle in certain settings may be unusual to many who are used to the cars and flashing lights.

The same kind of methods proposed to limit traffic fatalities (also discussed in this article) or to promote the use of other modes of transportation could also have the effect of reducing the need for police to patrol or drive on roadways. But, reducing the American dependence on or love for driving is a sizable task.

Advertising yourself through your vehicle

What does your car say about you? It can say a lot according to one Washington police department:

RichlandPDcars

The emphasis here is on limiting exposure to crime. Put a lot of information on your car, people might see it and take advantage.

But, this goes against what Americans argue is a feature of consumerism: the products purchased plus their customization and deployment reflects individuals and their personality. Americans do not just buy cars to get from one place to another. Instead, what model and trim and color buyers select reflects something about them. The pick-up truck reflects rugged individualism. The Toyota Prius reflects different sensibilities as does the Nissan Versa or the Subaru Outback. And then owners can modify the vehicle in a myriad of ways, including adding stickers or decals or a vanity plate to the back. And driving is essential to the American way of life.

Not all information given in public will lead to a crime. Of course, the tweet above does not cover all of the information one could add to their car. This includes messages about particular religions (think Coexist or fish emblems), political bumper stickers, and sports teams, just to name a few.

Looking at suburban crime and police activity across suburbs

With the popularity of suburban surveillance and discussions of police behavior in suburbs, it is helpful to have data about suburban police activity and crime:

hotrod die cast model on board

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Since 1990, arrest rates have trended downward nationwide. In suburbs, though, they have been leveling off or actually increasing since 2015, says Leah Pope, a senior research fellow at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit that aims to address the causes of mass incarceration and the loss of public trust in law enforcement. Arrest rates have declined faster in cities than suburbs.

This largely comes from a drop in “Part II” crimes, she says, which covers “less serious” offenses such as vandalism, drunkenness, disorderly conduct, loitering, and more. More serious, “Part I” crimes—including murder, rape, and robbery—have been declining as well, but arrests for Part II crimes have seen a sharper drop in cities than suburbs. These are arrests for crimes that many don’t think should necessitate an arrest anyway, Vera Institute research associate Frankie Wunschel notes: They could be citations, or warnings, or simply decriminalized, in the way that marijuana has been decriminalized, but not legalized, in some states.

Some suburbs are seeing their jail populations grow, too. According to 2015 data, nearly 9 in 10 large urban counties saw their jail populations decline. Between 2014 and 2015, the jail population in the country’s 61 large urban counties fell by more than 18,000 people total—equivalent to emptying Los Angeles County jails. The jail population grew, though, in 40% of suburban, small, and midsize counties.

Racial disparities also play a role in arrests for Part II crimes. Narcotic drug laws fall under these “less serious” crimes, and in 2015, more than one in four people arrested for drug law violations were Black, although drug use rates do not differ substantially by race. “There are huge racial disparities in arrests, and those racial disparities are more prevalent in suburban areas than they are in urban areas,” Pope says.

There are long-standing perceptions about the safety of suburbs as well as presumption that suburban police act better. But, this data and analysis suggests this can differ dramatically across suburban communities and suburban populations. At the least, this is a reminder of the complex suburbia of today: discussions of a monolithic suburbia simply do not line up with suburban realities. Going further, crime and policing can differ across suburbs, just as it can across urban neighborhoods or cities.

From this analysis, I wonder how the variation in crime and police activity across suburbs compares to the variation between wealthier urban neighborhoods versus those urban neighborhoods not as well off.

Suburban video doorbell surveillance and race

Suburbanites have more electronic “eyes on the street” with video doorbells and other devices. Comments from sociologist Simone Brown about surveillance and race provide context for this shift:

police blue sky security surveillance

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If you think about TV, like Cops being taken off the air or Gone With the Wind or whatever it is, there are all these ways black life is framed that shapes people’s viewing. I think it’s what Judith Butler calls a “racially saturated field of visibility,” where these stereotypes form our field of our vision. So, Rodney King bracing himself from the hits from the police, that video gets read by some folks as an act of aggression by him, as an act of violence because black men’s bodies are always figured as potentially violent…

It’s policing, but it’s like policing that now is mediated through these platforms, like Instagram and Facebook and other things. That’s not literal police, but it still is about the governing of black life and black resistance by the state or state-adjacent entities. And we know that Facebook is hand in hand with the Trump administration. So how do we then reconcile the seeming necessity of these technologies?…

That’s part of why I have this reaction when people say technology isn’t neutral, technology is biased. The fact that that needs to be said just shows you how comfortable people are with even the concept of neutral.

Exactly. And that requires like an entire upending of a lot of white folks’ ways of seeing that whiteness isn’t a neutral, police aren’t neutral. All of these things are framed by their histories. To let go of the idea of a technology, and perhaps the technology being used in the exercise of white supremacy of misogynoir or transphobia or being trans-antagonistic is a lot for many people to see. It’s an easy alibi, I think, to say that the technology made me do it.

What exactly is behind the move to install more personal cameras (and share that information with police and others on social media)? Fear of crime, intruders, destruction of personal property? Over recent decades crime rates have dropped yet the perceived need for safety at home has increased. The suburbs in general have a history of exclusion, a fear of the other, looking to avoid “urban” issues. Cameras provide the opportunity to constantly view who is around the sacred single-family home. Even if someone is just walking by on the public sidewalk or driving on the public street, these home cameras could pick them up.

Put together the racialized history of suburbs, assumptions about crime and danger in the United States, and the increase in cameras and this connects with what Browne says above. Who are the suburban cameras there to watch?

Suburban police and promoting a better future for youth

On Instagram, Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez connected defunding the police to what suburbs do instead:

AOCPoliceandSuburbs

A few thoughts:

1. According to sociologists and other scholars who have studied American suburbs over the last century, an overriding concern in suburbs is to protect families and let children flourish. The assumption is that suburban life – with its lower density, single-family homes, more space, better schools, lower crime – will benefit children in the long run.

2. At the same time, suburbs are also based on exclusion. For decades, only white people – and certain ones at that – were allowed in many suburbs. While this is officially off-limits today, it can be accomplished in other ways such as through exclusionary zoning, drawing school district boundaries, and through police.

3. Police can and have reinforced the race and class based exclusion in suburbs. This could range from sundown towns to watching fire bombings in Cicero, Illinois to harassing motorists, residents, and protestors in Ferguson, Missouri. Wealthier suburban residents generally do not want to involve the police in their conflicts but they can and do at times.

4. Many suburbs offer limited social services. The expectation is that residents will have the resources to provide for themselves or that corporations and local charities will provide.

5. Many suburbs like having their own police department. This allows them to retain local control, important for #2 and #3 above.

6. For an academic study of how this works in wealthier suburbia, I recommend America’s Safest City: Delinquency and Modernity in Suburbia. From the book description:

Adolescents, parents, teachers, coaches and officials, he concludes, are able in this suburban setting to recognize teens’ need for ongoing sources of trust, empathy, and identity in a multitude of social settings, allowing them to become what Singer terms ‘relationally modern’ individuals better equipped to deal with the trials and tribulations of modern life

Closer to blanketing suburban neighborhoods with cameras (via Ring doorbells)

Police in hundreds of cities will now have access to Ring doorbell camera footage:

The doorbell-camera company Ring has quietly forged video-sharing partnerships with more than 400 police forces across the United States, granting them access to homeowners’ camera footage and a powerful role in what the company calls America’s “new neighborhood watch.”

The partnerships let police automatically request the video recorded by homeowners’ cameras within a specific time and area, helping officers see footage from the company’s millions of Internet-connected cameras installed nationwide, the company said. Officers don’t receive ongoing or live-video access, and homeowners can decline the requests, which are sent via emails that thank them for “making your neighborhood a safer place.”…

To seek out Ring video that has not yet been publicly shared, officers can use a special “Neighbors Portal” map interface to designate a time range and local area, up to half a square mile wide, and get Ring to send an automated email to all users within that range, alongside a case number and message from police.

The user can click to share their Ring videos, review them before sharing or, at the bottom of the email, unsubscribe from future footage-sharing requests. “If you would like to take direct action to make your neighborhood safer, this is a great opportunity,” an email supplied by Ring states.

See earlier posts about suburban police access to individual cameras and my own thinking about covering suburban neighborhoods with private cameras. Quoting from the latter post:

[I]f every square inch of suburban street and sidewalk (plus a lot of yards) are covered by cameras, is something lost? Is there more trust that can disappear between neighbors? Is it truly all suburbanites for themselves even as at least some of them are fairly financially, socially, and educationally secure?

At the same time, I suspect numerous suburbs would welcome this extra surveillance. Think of wealthier suburban neighborhoods or communities: wouldn’t they typically welcome more information on who is around their homes? This might not even be about crime but really about possible crimes or activity from ne’er-do-wells or even who should be around on streets and sidewalks (often delimited by race and class). Privacy concerns might be mitigated by the suggestion in the article that users still get to choose whether they share footage with police.

Maybe it will all quickly come to this: what about the resident in these communities who refuses to get a Ring doorbell or install security cameras? A small hole in the surveillance network could bring about pressure from neighbors to conform and protect the neighborhood.

Will the public be willing to pay more money so police and prosecutors can go through all the new video evidence they have?

The uptick in evidence from devices like video doorbells and police body cameras means more work for public servants:

But State’s Attorney Joe McMahon said prosecutors in some ways are busier than ever with new types of evidence, such as surveillance from Wifi-enabled doorbells, police body cameras and home and business surveillance, compared to several years ago.

“We’re now seeing video come in from Ring doorbells,” McMahon said this week during his monthly media briefing. “We’re now getting actual video, audio and digital information that must be reviewed and analyzed and ultimately stored.”

In recent months, video from doorbell cameras helped police arrest a burglary suspect, and data from a Ring doorbell was used to confirm the identity of a suspect in a Sleepy Hollow home invasion, attempted murder and sex assault. Both court cases are pending.

McMahon said reviewing body camera video from multiple officers responding to a violent crime or even a DUI arrest has increased the workload for prosecutors compared to several years ago.

If there is demonstrable proof that crime rates are going down or more crimes are solved because of this additional evidence, I would guess the public would provide more funds – likely through taxes – to help go through all of the evidence. But, if the evidence does not lead to much or it somehow slips through the cracks or is hacked, it might be very hard to find the public resources.

This also seems ripe for algorithms/machine learning tools to help county and municipal officials scan quickly through all these video feeds. All of this could be very expensive to do in the short-term but could help handle the increasing video streams of the future.

Learning about the notorious criminals of other major cities

In recently reading Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City, I learned about several notable criminals and crimes in the largest city in the United States. This got me thinking: does every large city have its cast of unsavory lawbreakers that are relatively unknown to those who live outside the city or region?

Without reading histories of every large American city, it is hard to know. And I wonder if it is harder for these infamous characters to go unnoticed on the national scene today with the round the clock news coverage online and on TV that can talk about possibly criminal activity for hours and days without stop. On the flip side, these local characters might even become a part of civic pride or a grim experience everyone has shared or even tourist fodder. While cities can be compared on overall crime statistics (such as with claims that Chicago is the murder capital of the United States), stacking criminal individuals or groups against each other is a more nuanced task.

And would it be worthwhile to be able to name a few notable criminals from every major American city? These cases could help reveal some unique local history and character. But, they could also reinforce notions that cities are centers of crime. With so much interesting material to learn about a large city and/or a metropolitan region, criminal activity would be far down my list of what I would want to know.