Illustration: Patrik Mollwing

Nextdoor Is Quietly Replacing the Small-Town Paper

While Facebook and Twitter get the scrutiny, Nextdoor is reshaping politics one neighborhood at a time

One year ago, Delaware’s second-largest school district was in trouble. A failed referendum in 2019, on the heels of state funding cuts two years prior, had left it staring down a $10 million deficit that raised the specter of teacher layoffs, the end of sports and extracurriculars, and the demise of a promising magnet-school program. For a district already pummeled by an exodus of well-off families to private and charter schools — whose 14,000 students are roughly 75% nonwhite, 40% low-income, and more than 20% with special needs — it felt like the type of blow that could echo for generations.

Leaders and parent advocates in the district, the Christina School District in Newark, Del., had been banking on the referendum to pass. They knew that convincing residents to raise their own property taxes, often on behalf of kids other than their own, was never easy. But they had made what they thought was a compelling case through informational websites, word of mouth, and outreach to local media, the same strategy that had helped them pass a similar measure three years prior.

They never expected the campaign would also hinge, in part, on their ability to counter misinformation on Nextdoor, a platform best known for helping neighbors find a good plumber or a lost cat.

At its core, Nextdoor is an evolution of the neighborhood listserv for the social media age, a place to trade composting tips, offer babysitting services, or complain about the guy down the street who doesn’t clean up his dog’s poop. Like many neighborhood listservs, it also has increasingly well-documented issues with racial profiling, stereotyping of the homeless, and political ranting of various stripes, including QAnon.

But Nextdoor has gradually evolved into something bigger and more consequential than just a digital bulletin board: In many communities, the platform has begun to step into roles once filled by America’s local newspapers. “Anecdotally, Nextdoor has gone from being kind of sub-Facebook to actually being the main platform you hear people discussing as a vector for local news and events and discussions,” says Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

The company now operates in some 268,000 neighborhoods globally and has reportedly eyed going public at a valuation of $5 billion. Though it hasn’t disclosed how many people use its service, a Chicago city official told OneZero that Nextdoor has 277,760 users within the city, accounting for about 17% of all Chicago households, by the city’s calculation. If that penetration rate were representative of the rest of the country, Nextdoor would have about 34 million U.S. users, making it the country’s eighth-largest social network. For comparison, in 2018 the total daily circulation of all U.S. print newspapers was about 30 million, down from 63 million in 1984. (TV news viewership and digital news readership are significantly higher.)

“Anecdotally, Nextdoor has gone from being kind of sub-Facebook to actually being the main platform you hear people discussing as a vector for local news and events and discussions.”

The app boomed in popularity during the pandemic, reporting an 80% jump in user engagement in the first two weeks of March 2020, as neighbors sought advice on where to find toilet paper and masks, and stay-at-home orders hindered in-person interactions. It also became an important communication tool for local authorities about shutdown measures, mask mandates, and testing sites. As Nextdoor begins to outcompete local news sites for readers and ad dollars, it’s worth asking what’s gained and lost by that shift — and whether it is in the public interest.

What makes that question hard to answer is that Nextdoor is fundamentally opaque. You can’t view posts from outside your own locale, and there aren’t public analytics about what types of posts perform well or poorly. In reporting this story, I contacted Nextdoor four times over a period of three months. The company never responded. Ultimately I decided to write about it primarily through the lens of my own network, in the small city of Newark, Delaware, population 33,000. (I also gained access to the Nextdoor network for Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, a gentrified urban enclave, and spoke with researchers and users elsewhere.)

In Newark, I’ve had a front-row seat for Nextdoor’s emergence as a force in local politics, with the school district referendum as a watershed. As the 2019 referendum approached, I saw Nextdoor posts claiming that the district was squandering money, that its administrators were corrupt, and that it already spent more money per student than certain other districts with higher test scores. The last of those was true — but left out the context that Christina hosts both the state’s school for the deaf and its largest autism program.

District advocates told me later that they had wanted to post counterarguments to the platform, but were hindered by Nextdoor’s decentralized structure. Some district officers, for instance, couldn’t even access the posts and discussions happening in the city of Newark, because they were only visible to other Newark residents, and they lived outside the city’s borders. (The district’s headquarters are actually in nearby Wilmington.)

After the referendum failed, some pointed to misinformation on Nextdoor as a factor in its defeat. As one frustrated parent told the local weekly paper, the Newark Post: “It’s hard to combat that, if that’s where the public is going for information.”

The district began planning for another referendum in 2020. If it failed again, the consequences would be dire.

While social networks like Facebook and Twitter have faced a litany of scandals, Nextdoor has managed to duck the headlines and Congressional hearings. That may be at least partly due to some real virtues of the way it’s designed. Nextdoor’s feed-ranking algorithm feels less aggressively optimized than those of larger networks. There’s no such thing as “followers,” so there’s little incentive for users to post clickbait or engagement bait. The network’s intimate scope, with each user identified by their real first name, last initial, and neighborhood of residence, can make using Nextdoor feel less like a game of influence and more like, well, actually talking to your neighbors. It’s hard to go viral when your audience is limited to your immediate area.

“Good news,” which can be hard to come by on local TV newscasts or on the front page of a newspaper, often features prominently on Nextdoor. The most popular posts on my network in recent months have included one from a resident praising a local restaurant for its efforts to feed the hungry on Thanksgiving, and another from a resident who built an elaborate model train display in his window and invited families with kids to stop by to view it, as a Covid-safe winter activity. Found pets on Nextdoor seem to be nearly as common as missing ones. Seniors have been using the app to share tips on where to get their Covid vaccinations.

Not all of Nextdoor’s effects are so wholesome, however. A closer look reveals several design features that tend to tilt neighborhoods’ priorities toward the interests of their squeakiest wheels — sometimes at the expense of their most vulnerable, and sometimes at the expense of the truth.

Nextdoor seems to be most effective at amplifying well-off residents’ quality-of-life concerns. By requiring a verified mailing address at sign-up, the platform systematically excludes the homeless, who often become scapegoats in Nextdoor discussions, as Rick Paulas previously explained in OneZero. Though the platform’s user guidelines discourage discussions of national politics, in the past year, Nextdoor has drawn scrutiny for its role in discussions of race, class, and crime. Rahim Kurwa, an assistant professor of criminology and sociology at the University of Illinois, Chicago, published a 2019 paper describing Nextdoor as a “digitally gated community.”

A pop-up on the Nextdoor app reminds users not to discuss national politics in the main feed, but local politics are fair game. Screenshot courtesy of Nextdoor

Posts warning of crime and “suspicious” people arrive in Nextdoor feeds devoid of the context that a good local reporter might add, such as putting local crime rates in historical perspective or noting root causes such as unemployment or cuts to social services. “You get the sense that people enjoy and find the site’s value in the work of policing other people,” Kurwa told me. “You see these escalations or these mini-one-day panics over someone being ‘out of place,’” which are often racially tinged.

That’s a problem Nextdoor shares with other hyperlocal apps like Citizen and Neighbors — and, to be fair, with local TV newscasts, whose unofficial motto a New York magazine writer once famously skewered as, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

A problem more specific to Nextdoor is that — even more than some other social networks — the platform makes it hard for users to distinguish truth from untruth. You can post an image, but the majority of posts are text-only, and posting a link to another website doesn’t unfurl any preview of the headline or image to encourage readers to click through, as Facebook and Twitter do. As a result, “facts” cited in support of users’ opinions often come sans citation.

“You get the sense that people enjoy and find the site’s value in the work of policing other people.”

Unlike the leading social platforms, which prioritize original posts over the replies or comments, reply threads on Nextdoor form the core of its content — a trait it shares with Reddit. But Nextdoor lacks Reddit’s upvoting and downvoting mechanism for elevating some replies over others. Instead, it tends to surface and even send push notifications for the posts that are getting the largest volume of replies, meaning that controversial comments drawing lots of angry rebuttals get amplified instead of buried. Arguments on Nextdoor tend to have a he said, she said character, regardless of which side has the more persuasive points or the preponderance of evidence.

The site’s unpaid moderators are not always well-equipped to settle these feuds. Each neighborhood’s mods, or “leads,” are residents who are nominated for the position by other moderators on the basis of their “behavior and qualifications,” and who agree to volunteer their time without compensation. They can decide to take posts down or leave them up, and close discussions or leave them open, with few options in between. (Moderators can privately message the poster, but can’t uprank, downrank, fact-check, or otherwise modify their posts, and only Nextdoor staff can ban users.)

One of the moderators in my neighborhood until recently was Chris Hamilton, who also happens to be my district’s representative on the Newark City Council. Hamilton told me he had no intention of becoming a moderator and has never been fully clear on how it happened. “They made me a moderator right after I got into office,” in 2017, Hamilton said. Looking at the app one day, he recalled, “I saw a leaf next to my name and I thought, ‘Hey, that’s interesting.’” (A leaf icon denotes a moderator.) “All of a sudden I started getting emails asking me to weigh in on whether this or that post should be banned.”

Hamilton relinquished his moderator role last year, citing the workload. In the Christina School District referendum, he said, he observed people on both sides cherry-picking statistics to support their view, with no one to adjudicate which ones were valid. “Anybody with an opinion can post and act like an expert,” he said. “So as it gets more broadly used… let’s just say, you have to watch the quality of the posts now.”

At times it seems that the key to being heard on Nextdoor is sheer persistence. Any regular user of the app can probably name a few of the most vocal and aggressive users in their network, whose comments seem to pop up on just about every thread. If Nextdoor at its best is a neighborly town square, Nextdoor at its worst is more like an inconsistently moderated online comment section in which the ignorant loudmouths are people you’re also forced to encounter in real life.

The best and worst of Nextdoor’s dynamics were on display as cities used the network to distribute information about Covid-19. Chicagoans who opened their Nextdoor app on November 13, for instance, saw a post from the city’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, atop their news feed. In bold font, it announced that a new stay-at-home order would take effect citywide on November 16. “Chicago, please only leave your home for essential needs, including work and school,” Lightfoot wrote. “At home, please avoid inviting any guests over.”

Within hours, the post had sparked hundreds of comments from Nextdoor users. Some were supportive. More were angry.

“Can I advise you to shut the hell up?” responded one resident, from the city’s Kelvyn Park neighborhood. “I’m not incarcerating myself at home so that you can exercise control and manipulation. Thaaaaaanks.” The post was among the most-liked in the thread. Another popular response, from a user in East Jefferson Park: “I could careless [sic] what the Governor and Mayor say. This part of their political agenda.” A resident of Clearing posted a recent video of the mayor herself using a megaphone, without a mask, at a crowded outdoor gathering celebrating Joe Biden’s presidential election victory. The user added: “This was last week in boystown…. Hypocrite.”

Screenshots show a November 13 Nextdoor post from Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announcing a new stay-at-home advisory due to Covid-19 (left), and some of the most popular responses from local Nextdoor users (right).

The angriest, least evidence-based responses were among the most popular — and the most visible, generating reply threads of their own that quickly devolved into shouting matches. Because Nextdoor’s algorithm often generates push notifications for the most-discussed topics, such arguments can generate feedback loops, drawing in users who might not have sought them out otherwise. Once you’ve replied to a thread, the app sends updates as more replies roll in, making them hard to ignore.

Nextdoor’s rules prohibit posts or comments that contain “false or misleading information about Covid-19,” but do not prohibit posts questioning public health orders. Lightfoot’s post clearly got word out. Yet the context in which it appeared on Nextdoor served to undermine the message, casting doubt on its legitimacy and implicitly urging people to disregard it.

On the other side of that coin, social platforms are becoming ever more central to the city’s communications, said Han Nguyen, director of digital strategy for Mayor Lightfoot.

“If you’re talking about hyperlocal and you’re not thinking about Nextdoor, there’s a real missed opportunity there.”

While the mayor’s Facebook and Twitter accounts have a larger audience, Nguyen said in a phone interview that he sees Nextdoor as filling an important niche among social platforms because it inherently treats users as members of a community. Nextdoor gives cities the ability to post messages to every user within their jurisdiction, which appear at the top of people’s feeds when they log in.

He believes anecdotally that users are more engaged in local issues on Nextdoor than on other platforms, with a higher ratio of active commenters to lurkers. “If you’re talking about hyperlocal and you’re not thinking about Nextdoor, there’s a real missed opportunity there.”

As an example of Nextdoor’s positive side, Nguyen pointed to a December 7 post by Lightfoot that read simply, “Do you personally know someone who has gotten COVID? Let us know in the comments.” Hundreds of comments rolled in, most of them answering in the affirmative and drawing sympathetic reactions. Nguyen said he believes those personal testimonials not only created human connections, but may have also helped to personalize and drive home for Chicagoans the urgency of an issue that is often talked about in numbers and abstractions.

Nguyen noted that the company sent a representative to meet with him soon after Lightfoot took office in 2019, encouraging her to use the platform as a communication tool. Nextdoor did not respond to my requests to confirm this or share usage data in other cities.

In some ways, Nextdoor is filling a gap left by a dearth of local news outlets. “In discussions of how people are finding out about local news, Nextdoor and Facebook Groups are the two online platforms that crop up most in our research,” said Columbia’s Emily Bell. Bell is helping to lead a project examining the crisis in local news and the landscape that’s emerging in its wake.

“When we were scoping out, ‘What does a news desert look like?’ it was clear that there’s often a whole group of hyperlocal platforms that we don’t traditionally consider to be news,” Bell said. They included Nextdoor, Facebook Groups, local Reddit subs, and crime-focused apps such as Citizen and Amazon Ring’s Neighbors. In the absence of a traditional news outlet, “people do share news, they do comment on news,” she said. “But they’re doing it on a platform like Nextdoor that really is not designed for news — may be in the same way that Facebook is not designed for news.”

Like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, Nextdoor makes money by charging businesses to place ads among the posts that appear in users’ feeds. More than those other platforms, Nextdoor focuses on local advertisers — including many of the same ones that historically sustained local newspapers. As in the local paper, you’ll find on Nextdoor ads offering grocery coupons, home insurance, and yoga classes, as well as a classified ad section.

While Nextdoor has not been a main driver of local news’ decline — Google and Facebook are much bigger culprits, commanding the majority of digital advertising spend, while Craigslist dealt the primary blow to the classified section — its rise is coming at a time when many local papers are teetering on the precipice. Between 2005 and 2020, the United States lost more than one-fourth of its local newspapers, according to the most recent annual report on “news deserts” from the University of North Carolina. And that was before the pandemic “super-charged” the trend, said Penny Abernathy, the report’s author and a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s journalism school.

Newark isn’t a news desert, but it isn’t exactly an oasis, either. Its only true local news source is the Newark Post, a free, weekly paper that employs one full-time journalist to write and edit most of the articles and take the photos. (It also shares a second reporter with another local paper in the same chain.) That full-time journalist, Post editor Josh Shannon, has come to view Nextdoor as a double-edged sword.

“I’ve definitely noticed in the last year or two that Nextdoor seems to be a bigger part of the conversation,” Shannon said in a phone conversation. “But the weird thing is, it’s so closed off that it’s really hard to get a sense of what’s spiraling on there, and obviously there’s an ability for misinformation to form.” He cited the school district referendum as an example.

For local reporters, the rise of Nextdoor and other social platforms also presents a more subtle, long-term problem. “The biggest frustration I have is the power it gives the government,” Shannon said.

In the past, he explained, public officials needed local news outlets to get their message out, so they had little choice but to take reporters’ calls. That meant accepting that their perspective would form part of the story, but would be fact-checked and brought together with information from other sources, some of which might challenge or contradict the official line. For instance, the Chicago Tribune’s story on Mayor Lightfoot’s shutdown order buttressed the news with extensive public health data, interviews with experts, regional and statewide context, and discussion of the tradeoffs involved. When Shannon covers a major crime or arrest by Newark Police, he’ll seek out court records and interview people who knew the suspect and victim, giving him the chance to raise questions about the officers’ actions.

“We can call and call and call and they don’t bother to call back.”

Now, Shannon said, “These social media outlets give governments and police agencies and universities a chance to bypass the media” and present their press statements to the public as the whole story, often beating the press to the news. Readers on Nextdoor don’t necessarily know to take authorities’ version of events with a grain of salt, giving them a one-sided picture.

While Shannon said he’s fortunate to still have good relationships with many Newark officials, “There are definitely organizations and agencies that don’t feel like they need to answer questions anymore because they feel like they have other platforms to reach people. They’ll post it on Nextdoor, post it on Facebook, and they’ll link back to their own website. We can call and call and call and they don’t bother to call back.”

While it may serve advertisers well, Nextdoor so far shows few signs that it’s capable of replacing the accountability journalism that defined local news at its best, Northwestern’s Abernathy told me. “What Facebook or Nextdoor are good at is, if there is an obvious news event, they’re good at giving you what people in the community are saying is up-to-the-minute information. It could be that the Piggly Wiggly is open, or the power just came back on at their house. Is it always verifiable? Probably not. Can you always translate that into what it means for you? Probably not.”

“What it’s not good at giving you,” Abernathy continued, “is what historically the best local newspapers have done — which is to give you the information on not just what’s happening in the moment but issues that are bubbling just below the surface that are going to affect the quality of your life and of future generations. Issues around education, the environment, health, infrastructure, economic development, politics, and even the part that is what some economists call the qualitative capital of a community, its cultural history.”

Sociologist Sandra Ball-Rokeach, a professor emerita at the University of Southern California, Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, said Nextdoor can play a modest sort of community-building role by connecting neighbors around discussions on certain topics. But she agreed it’s no substitute for local journalism. When people turn to Nextdoor instead of a local paper, Ball-Rokeach said, “They’re getting to know which plumber to hire. They’re getting to know the latest controversies on the trailers for homeless people in the park. But they’re not getting to know what’s really important in terms of the decision-making at multiple levels of government and how those decisions are being affected by various different power players.”

A month after the failed Christina School District referendum in 2019 the school board voted 4–3 to eliminate 63 jobs, with the alternative being bankruptcy and a bid for a state bailout. Some parents gave up hope; a neighbor of mine who had been among the district’s staunch supporters abruptly sold her house and moved her family to suburban Pennsylvania, where public schools are better-funded. Others who could afford it moved their children to private schools, furthering one of the trends that had put the district in tough shape to begin with.

The district and its backers started planning another referendum campaign for 2020, with the stakes now desperate. On the chopping block if they failed again would be not just teacher and staff jobs, but after-school sports, extracurriculars, and a nascent, award-winning magnet-school program. In fact, the school board voted to make all those cuts a month before the referendum in order to balance its budget; only if it passed would they be reversed.

This time, their strategy included arming supporters with facts and counter-arguments to post whenever they encountered criticism on their respective Nextdoor networks around the district. “There was definitely more of a cohesive effort to provide talking points to community activists,” said Claire O’Neal, a parent who won appointment to the school board later that year. “It so happened that Nextdoor was one of the places where misinformation was being spread.”

As the special election approached, something unexpected happened: Nextdoor threads 50 and 100 replies long dug deep into the district’s finances, its budget, administrator salaries, and what the consequences might be if the referendum passed or failed. Unlike the year before, the district’s supporters seemed to outnumber its detractors. The discussions were among the hottest topics on Newark-area Nextdoor networks, making what would typically be a low-turnout election feel like a high-stakes event, the topic everyone was talking about.

On election day, June 9, polling places had lines out the door — a rarity for a single-issue local election. Turnout was unprecedented, nearly doubling that of 2019. And the result was a landslide: Some 70% of voters approved all four funding requests, with more people voting “yes” than the total number who had voted the year before. Suddenly, the district’s future looked hopeful again.

Exactly what role Nextdoor played in that dramatic turnaround is hard to disentangle. The option to vote by mail due to Covid-19 may have helped; the sense of urgency for the district certainly did. O’Neal believes the informal Nextdoor information campaign made a difference. “I do think it was a factor in its passing,” she told me. The lesson for the district, and other public agencies, she believes, is that they can no longer win the battle of public opinion on their own. They have to actively enlist advocates in the community to wage it on their behalf on Nextdoor and other hyperlocal online networks.

“It just requires more of individual citizens,” O’Neal said. “It’s a lot more work because there’s just so much information out there, and it’s up to you to decide what’s right and what’s wrong. There’s a part of that that’s beautiful, and there’s a part of that that’s really scary.”

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium