For months, I scanned Nextdoor, a social networking app that connects you with your neighbors, with relatively passive interest. But over the last several weeks, things started getting a little weird in South Park.

A woman was going door to door, presumably casing houses. She’d tell residents who answered their doors that she was sorry for blocking their driveway earlier that day. Neighbors started seeing her disappearing into backyards and garages and coming out with bikes or strollers. Sometimes she’d be wearing clean, white gardening gloves.

Sara Libby on News

Nextdoor quickly became a strange online detective novel being written in real time.

“I just saw her headed down 31st Street!” a neighbor would post. “I found the gloves tossed on a sidewalk!” another would chime in. It seemed as if a small crowd of amateur PIs was following this woman around Golden Hill and South Park at any given moment.

Usually, Nextdoor is far less eventful than all that – it’s a place where neighbors share fruit from their backyard trees, corral loose dogs and return them to their owners and keep a watchful eye on their neighbors’ homes – a real little online Pleasantville.

Plenty has been written about Nextdoor’s explosive growth and its partnerships with police and other agencies. In San Diego, it’s up and running in 94 percent of neighborhoods across the county, and a spokeswoman for the site told me San Diego is “definitely one of our leading markets across the country.”

I initially joined the site thinking it might be a good breeding ground for story ideas. That didn’t pan out, unless you guys are in the market for something along the lines of “South Park Residents Still Not Fans of Those Times You Don’t Pick Up Your Dog’s Poop.”

But it’s not without its charms and utility. Here’s what I’ve learned in about six months of using Nextdoor.

The concept is sort of Mayberry meets Silicon Valley.

The idea certainly predates the technology: knowing your neighbors, keeping tabs on your community.

Using an app to get there, though, presents a curveball.

On the tech familiarity scale, Nextdoor exists somewhere between Facebook and Twitter. It’s not a curated list of people you already know in real life, like Facebook, but nor is it a group of far-flung people you’ve mostly never met, like Twitter. It’s people you often don’t know in real life, but who happen to live right next to you. You might give someone a nod while you pass each other walking your dogs in the morning, then unknowingly debate that same person online about whether a new business nearby is sucking up all the available parking.

“Just like Facebook has the friend graph, Twitter has the interest graph, and LinkedIn has the business graph, Nextdoor is trying to create the local graph,” said Kelsey Grady, head of communications for Nextdoor. “When you think about it, we’re trying to build a graph that doesn’t yet exist.”

Grady pointed to Pew Research from 2010 that says 28 percent of Americans don’t know a single neighbor by name.

“We see a lot of people forming relationships in person with their neighbors. We’re definitely creating new connections between people that didn’t exist before, based on location,” said Grady.

Everyone’s different, but I’ve found the site far more useful for keeping tabs on what’s happening in the neighborhood than for fostering relationships – the only time I’ve ever used the site to connect with a neighbor in real life was to report this story.

It’s a new technology, but the same old neighborhood disputes.

We’re talking about an online forum here, so naturally things can digress quickly.

Nextdoor doesn’t monitor all conversations, and largely relies on communities to police themselves.

“Most of the time, 99.99 percent of the time, conversations are incredibly productive. Only a quarter of 1 percent of messages have been flagged as abusive,” said Grady.

Abuse is one thing. Far more often, conversations just become annoying.

In my neighborhood, for example, one user wrote a post congratulating a couple who live on his block on the impending opening of their new bakery, also in the neighborhood. But because the business happens to have a small drive-thru – which North and South Parkers consider the ultimate menace – things quickly took a turn. What began as a lovely congratulatory thread immediately went south. How dare they violate our neighborhood in this way, the profit-driven monsters!

Unsurprisingly, density and quality-of-life spats spring up from seemingly unrelated posts (speaking of your lost cat, did I mention how Target is an evil corporation?).

Nextdoor does, however, have one thing going for it that largely protects against some of the internet’s ugliest tendencies: There’s no anonymity. People must post using a real first and last name. (Of course, some fake names slip through.)

“That helps with quality of conversation,” said Grady. “You can’t have a LonelyGirl65 user name, which can take things in a negative direction really quickly.”

Proximity plays a role here, too. Whereas you might feel a certain freedom to post a nasty Facebook comment or Twitter rant if it’s directed at a faraway aunt or someone in Tennessee you’ve never met, you’ll probably hold your tongue if you know you’ll run into the target of your diatribe at CVS.

It’s a useful neighborhood watch tool.

Remember my neighborhood burglar?

One of the neighbors who rallied to take her down was Sue Askew. Askew called police when she saw a woman going in and out of people’s backyards, and rummaging through recycling bins. The woman was wearing white gardening gloves – just like earlier Nextdoor posts had described.

She and a couple other neighbors swapping tips about the woman started darting through streets in South Park, hoping to catch up with her.

When police arrived, Askew was with the other neighbor-detectives and showed an officer a photo she’d snapped of the woman.

“He was just shocked, like, ‘Who are you people?’” Askew said.

The woman was arrested soon after, though she’s been spotted since then, up to the same old routine.

Askew said that through Nextdoor, she’s exchanged contact information with her immediate neighbors, so they can text one another if they notice something suspicious. Recently, a neighbor sent her a message saying he saw a man lurking on her porch when he knew Askew wasn’t there. It was just Askew’s visiting brother, but she was thankful to have someone watching out for her home.

“People are starting to look out. For that, I’m so grateful,” she said.

SDPD Officer Matthew Tortorella, who coordinates the department’s Nextdoor efforts, brought up a case from 2014.

A man in the UTC area contacted a lieutenant on Nextdoor, saying officers might want to check out a van parked on his street. The van had been there at least a couple days, was facing the wrong direction and had a window open.

Officers eventually determined that the vehicle was stolen – and had been used in the burglary of a Starbucks.

“This isn’t 911, this isn’t a way to report crime, but for this gentleman, he was just conveying that it might be something to check out. Lo and behold, we were very fortunate he did,” Tortorella said.

It’s one of SDPD’s biggest success stories.

Nextdoor currently partners with at least eight city and police agencies in San Diego County, but SDPD is by far its biggest success story. The department hits its two-year anniversary using Nextdoor this month.

Officers have limited access to the site – they can create posts, and they can see responses on those posts, but they can’t see any other activity. If I created my own post ranting against the police, the officers using the site wouldn’t know.

“For public safety agencies, the real advantage to Nextdoor is they get to communicate to verified residents,” said Grady. “When they post on Twitter, they’re not totally confident who they’re getting the message to.”

Over the past year, we’ve reported on forums and panels on police officers’ interactions with the community. Inevitably, these meetings are tense, heated affairs.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

That’s what makes the department’s interactions on Nextdoor so remarkable. The exchanges I’ve observed between officers and users on the site are almost uniformly positive – glowing even.

“In a public forum, you kind of have the energy of people around you who are upset, we’ve all experienced that. In an electronic format, it gives you time to sit down and think about how you want to articulate your message. … You don’t have the crowd kind of rooting on emotions,” said Tortorella.

He also thinks fewer millennials use Nextdoor than other social media outlets, which could also be a factor.

“I was a little skeptical about the kind of interactions the police and the community were going to have in a virtual outlet,” he said. “But I was pleasantly surprised at how effective it was at getting info out and having a good dialogue with people.”

The department is proactive on Nextdoor – it posts safety tips and virtual meet-and-greets with officers. That way, residents get used to having interactions with officers that don’t spring from a negative event.

Tortorella said he’s working on taking things even further. He’d like to produce videos for the site with community experts, like enlisting a local bike shop owner to demonstrate how to lock up your bike properly, for example.

“I live here, I work here, I love this city,” Tortorella said. “I really just try and put myself in the shoes of just any citizen. What do I want to see from my police department?”

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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