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Nextdoor, a social network for neighborhoods, has exploded in popularity in recent years, igniting controversy along the way. Critics say the site encourages fear of outsiders and racism among neighbors — and Nextdoor is responding to them in a big way.

Since May, the San Francisco-based company has been testing features intended to ban racial profiling in regions around the country. Today it is rolling out the changes nationwide. As of Wednesday morning, users in Nextdoor’s 110,000 neighborhoods throughout the US face new guidelines when posting under the “Suspicious Activity” and “Crime and Safety” categories. The changes include a series of reminders about racial profiling and a two-step description when reporting suspicious persons.

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Nextdoor changed the form that users fill out when reporting suspicious activity. Now, they’re prompted to provide distinguishing characteristics other than race (like hair and clothing) first. After submitting that information, they’re then asked to submit other basics, like race, sex, and age.

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If the post doesn’t include enough identifying information, beyond race, the user can’t publish it. The changes, which could alienate some existing users, are highly unusual for a social media site. But Nextdoor CEO and co-founder Nirav Tolia says the update isn’t about business. It’s personal.

“To some extent, you’re either part of the solution or not,” Tolia said in an interview with GeekWire today. “We want to be part of the solution. We feel like we have a moral obligation to do that, not just as employees of Nextdoor but as people.”

External pressure also played a role. Nextdoor began discussing these changes when its own neighbors came knocking. Two Oakland-based activist groups, Neighbors for Racial Justice and 100 Black Men, approached the company with concerns over racially charged posts. Nextdoor worked with the organizations and other experts to develop the new features.

GeekWire caught up with Tolia to discuss the unorthodox decision to ban racial profiling. Continue reading for the edited Q&A.

GeekWire: Why did Nextdoor decide to ban racial profiling?

Nextdoor CEO Nirav Tolia. (Photo via LinkedIn).
Nextdoor CEO Nirav Tolia. (Photo via LinkedIn).

Tolia: Racial profiling is completely counter to the mission of why we created the company. Our goal is to use technology to bring neighbors together and assist them in building stronger and safer neighborhoods and racial profiling is divisive, discriminatory, and can create great harm in neighborhoods. So it’s just about the opposite of everything we want to accomplish.

GW: How effective has the change been since you started the pilot program?

Tolia: We’ve made a series of changes over the last eight months but, more recently, we’ve been testing an entirely new posting process for when our members create crime and safety messages and that series of improvements, we’re really proud to say, reduced racial profiling incidents by 75 percent.

GW: How are you able to measure that?

Tolia: It’s a statistically significant analysis that we’ve done and, at a high-level, over some period of time, we analyzed every single post in the crime and safety category for almost 70 percent of our 110,000 neighborhoods. In all of those posts, if there was any mention of race, we read them manually. As we read them manually we did a double blind and redundant process, where we had different people, inside and outside the company, of different genders and races, reading through these and grading them separately, without knowing where the post came from, which form created them, etc. And then, finally, we brought all that information together and did statistical regression that showed us, by a rank, which set of forms performed the best. The winning variation reduced racial profiling by 75 percent.

It was a pretty rigorous analysis. We ran it for a series of months and manually examined thousands and thousands of posts.

Nextdoor2GW: Has there been any negative reaction to the changes?

Tolia: We are sometimes accused of stifling free speech and blocking people from posting things but I think those folks don’t understand exactly what we’ve done. We haven’t actually blocked anything. If you’re posting anything on Nextdoor, crime and safety-related, and you don’t mention race, there’s no change at all. If you do mention race, then we require more information but we don’t block you from posting. You just can’t post something where the only descriptor you have is race. So you can’t say, ‘ a dark-skinned man broke into this car,’ because that is definitely racial profiling. You can say, ‘a dark-skinned man, who’s about six-four, who looks to be in his mid-twenties, who has a yellow shirt and red pants broke into a car.’ So I think there’s a misperception that these changes have somehow blocked people from posting but we have not heard that feedback from anyone who’s actually encountered the changes. That’s more of an emotional reaction.

GW: I know that Nextdoor has been discussing these issues with organizations in the Bay Area. Are you in touch with any groups like that in Seattle?

Tolia: No, we haven’t been contacted. The Seattle PD is an existing partner of ours and so we’ve solicited their feedback.

The way this happened is, a little over a year ago, we received word from some Oakland community groups who really like Nextdoor. They saw posts on Nextdoor where they felt that, while they might be well-meaning, they actually ended up being somewhat destructive because they profiled entire races of people.

All of these improvements were made possible through working sessions with community groups. They’re called The Neighbors for Racial Justice and 100 Black Men as well as the Oakland PD, as well as the city of Oakland, including the Vice Mayor and one of the councilmembers, as well as a number of different consultants that we hired — some from the ACLU and some from the DOJ.

We did not consider ourselves to be experts in racial equity. It was something that we needed to become educated on and we have needed to reach out for assistance to experts and we’ve jointly created these changes.

GW: Banning racial profiling is a pretty radical move for a platform like Nextdoor. What makes it different than other social networks?

Tolia: The biggest difference is Nextdoor is about the real world community. It’s about the community in which you live, whereas Facebook is some of your friends that you see every day but a large number of your friends on Facebook aren’t folks you run into physically; whereas Twitter, you can follow and have discourse with people that you’ve never even met and the same goes with Instagram.

Nextdoor is all about really acting as a mirror of what’s happening in your true physical world where you spend a majority of your time. It’s fundamentally different. It’s fundamentally different because we require address verification. It’s fundamentally different because it’s completely private. It’s fundamentally different because, for us, ultimate success is a conversation on Nextdoor leading to an interaction in the real world. We don’t want to keep you on Nextdoor. We want Nextdoor to serve as an icebreaker for you to get to know your neighbors and communicate with them in-person, which is completely different. We call ourselves a social network but, in reality, we are more of a community type forum.

GW: Is that why you were motivated to take these steps against racial profiling when other platforms wouldn’t dream of it?

Tolia: We’re so busy here I can only speak to the way we think about things but we believe racism is one of the most divisive issues facing society today. To some extent you’re either part of the solution or not. We want to be part of the solution. We feel like we have a moral obligation to do that, not just as employees of Nextdoor but as people.

I know that all of my colleagues, our employee base, feels very strongly about this. It’s a personal issue for us. It’s not a business issue. At the same time, a very difficult issue and so we don’t believe that some changes we’ve made to a website, some new forms, etc., are going to somehow end racism. That’s a ridiculous statement. However, we felt very, very accountable to ourselves to try to move the ball forward and hold it back.

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