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On a trip to Seattle a few months ago, a New Orleans photographer’s high-end camera was stolen, along with the 1,500 or so photographs it contained. He returned to New Orleans, considering it a lost cause. But undercover Seattle police officers intercepted the camera and posted about it on the neighborhood social network, Nextdoor, with which the department has a partnership. A Nextdoor user recognized the camera from a Craigslist ad and connected the dots for the police. Soon, the New Orleans man was reunited with his camera.

Sean Whitcomb, public affairs director for the Seattle Police Department calls this a “clear Nextdoor success story.” However, it also highlights concerns among some Seattle residents about the increasingly popular platform’s cozy relationship with public agencies.

In the past year, the site’s user base in the city has grown by 103 percent, according to Nextdoor. More than 2,500 neighborhoods in the greater Seattle region have Nextdoor sites. Ninety-eight percent of neighborhoods (195) are represented in Seattle.

Nextdoor Demo site.
Nextdoor Demo site.

The platform’s meteoric rise over the past year has coincided with major changes in Seattle. Median home value in the city increased by 9.5 percent and median rent rose by 7.2 percent, according to Zillow data. The city planning office estimates Seattle’s population has grown by approximately 54,000 in the past five years.

The tech industry is at the heart of both of these growth stories. Nextdoor is a tech startup out of Silicon Valley. It has seen huge success in U.S. cities, by providing a platform for communities to connect and discuss local concerns.

Nextdoor distinguishes itself from other social platforms and community networks with its verification model. Users are required to verify their address via a credit card, home phone number, or mailed code. Only residents living within the boundaries of a neighborhood can see what other users in their community post. That level of privacy is valuable to many Nextdoor users but it has become a lightning rod in the larger conversation about the city’s evolution.

logo-green-largeAs Seattle grapples with the growing pains of a tech-driven boom, Nextdoor has become a crucial resource for many neighborhoods to discuss the issues they face. While some Nextdoor members celebrate this about the platform, others worry that it further stratifies Seattle in this critical growth period.

Explosive growth in an evolving city

You’ve probably heard of the Seattle Freeze — the city’s reputation as a chilly place for newcomers. As more and more transplants gravitate toward the Emerald City, digital tools are often the easiest way to foster new connections. In the same way apps like Tinder and Bumble help people connect with peers, Nextdoor is often the first stop for new residents hoping to get to know their neighbors.

Seattle's housing market is on fire. Photo via Shutterstock
Photo via Shutterstock

“We do more as a neighborhood,” HaikuDeck CEO Adam Tratt said of Nextdoor, which he uses avidly. “We have more social functions because it’s much easier to say, hey we’re having a picnic. It’s in this location on this day. I think it’s had a really positive impact on the neighborhood and I think it’s also keeping us safer.”

Safety is a high priority for Tratt, who was carjacked by a gun-wielding assailant in December. But just as important, he says, is the neighborhood engagement that Nextdoor has brought to the north Seattle region he lives in.

Many Seattle newcomers gravitate to Nextdoor seeking that sense of community, while long-term residents appreciate it as a place to discuss the major changes the city faces.

The influx of high-paid workers to the region has created a housing affordability crisis, squeezing lower income residents and contributing to the city’s homelessness problem. In January, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency and ordered two safe lots for people who live in vehicles.

The establishment of those lots — in the Ballard and Delridge neighborhoods — has been controversial, leading many neighbors to voice their complaints on Nextdoor.

“What concerns me about that is I don’t want it to be a bulletin board for people to complain about homeless people and RVs and other sorts of perceived crimes,” said local journalist and blogger Erica Barnett. “I don’t want it to become a sounding board for complaints and I also don’t want it to become a megaphone for certain neighborhoods to be able to get the attention of City Hall and other neighborhoods not able to get that attention.”

Public information on a private platform

Erica C. Barnett
Erica Barnett.

Barnett wrote about these concerns recently, in a blog post titled ‘Gated Community NextDoor Booted Me for Publishing What People Say There.’

She was covering a digital town hall event with Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole. Although all police department content is public on Nextdoor, members’ responses to that information are considered private under the site’s terms of service. When Barnett published users’ comments she was removed from the group.

“In the past, we’ve always actually protected users’ privacy when they’re communicating with the police department but last week there was this public town hall and that crossed this new line for us,” said Kelsey Grady, Nextdoor Head of Communications. “So that’s where the confusion was with Erica and that’s why we ultimately reinstated her account.”

Nextdoor’s partnership with the SPD is not unique to Seattle. The social platform has partnered with more than 1,300 public agencies across the country, many of which are law enforcement. About 16 percent of conversations on Nextdoor are related to crime and safety, so these partnerships aren’t altogether surprising.

But they are alarming for some Seattle residents concerned about privacy restrictions on conversations with public agencies.

“It takes information that is supposed to be public and puts it behind walls and makes it a violation of the terms of service to share that information outside of the service,” said Justin Carder, publisher of the Capitol Hill Seattle Blog. “If you start drawing lines those are bad directions for democracy.”

Do tight-knit communities foster fear of outsiders?

For some, Barnett’s experience raises questions about whether civic conversations should be private and what the consequences of that privacy may be. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray commented on Barnett’s Facebook, saying he would look into the issue. A few days later, he appeared on KUOW’s ‘The Record,’ and voiced his concerns.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.

“It seems that we’re creating a sense of mistrust and people are becoming frightened of living in their own neighborhoods, when the empirical data shows, yes crime happens, but it’s still a pretty safe place to live,” he said.And the neighborhoods where most of the social media complaints are coming out of are not even the neighborhoods that have significant crime problems, which tend to be our communities of color in the south part of the city. If it’s simply about creating a sense of paranoia or if it’s about stigmatizing folks in our city that are struggling, then I have to think about why we’re in that kind of partnership.”

Barnett echoed the mayor’s concerns that Nextdoor provides a space for communities to complain about the homeless and neighborhood crime with less accountability than if their statements were public.

“There was no response to any of the questions about gang violence, about guns, about any of the stuff that affects south-end neighborhoods more than north-end neighborhoods,” Barnett said of Police Chief O’Toole’s town hall on Nextdoor. “To me, that’s disturbing and in terms of policy what she announced…was that there’s going to be a new property crimes task force in SPD dedicated, as she put it, almost exclusively to the north-end. So those are police resources that are being taken off other purposes and put onto addressing property crimes in the north-end. To me, those two seem directly related.”

When asked about the task force, Whitcomb did not indicate that it was formed in response to the Nextdoor town hall. He said the property crimes unit would serve all Seattle communities. Whitcomb also explained that the department is not worried about issues of privacy because the information they share on Nextdoor is also disseminated elsewhere.

“We want to make sure we’re listening to everyone,” he said. “Knowing what I know and working in public affairs, I can tell you that Nextdoor’s not getting more weight. However, if you’ve heard it on Nextdoor you may have already heard it on another channel. The town hall we did on Nextdoor was specific to concerns we were hearing on Nextdoor, so we were just being responsive.”

Though they remain a major concern for many Nextdoor users, property crimes in the northwest and southeast precincts declined slightly in 2015, according to police data.

“You can’t see what people in other neighborhoods are saying and that’s a problem because if I’m in Magnolia or Ballard and I’m worried about property crime but I don’t know that there’s a lot of gang violence in southeast Seattle, for example, then I might think that the police really need to dedicate all of their resources to my neighborhood,” said Barnett.

But opening up these discussions would prove problematic for Nextdoor. Because the site requires users to provide their home addresses, the promise of privacy is vital.

“There’s nothing that I would personally say to my neighbors that I wouldn’t say to a different group of people but I suppose that could matter to some,” said Tratt. “To me, it’s just about the tactical privacy of my home and details about my family that I would hide from a more broad group. I want my neighbors to know who my kids are. I want them to know my kids names and I want them to be looking for my kids. I do not want the Twitterverse to know who my kids are or my kids names. To me, that’s what’s important about the privacy. That’s a critical piece of value.”

This value — or issue depending who you ask — is what makes Nextdoor different than other social platforms employed by public agencies. It’s an issue that government officials and the Nextdoor team are wrestling with.

“Privacy is really, really important on Nextdoor…but on the contrary, when we partner with the police department all of their content is actually publicly available, so it’s this interesting line that we’re walking and we’re trying to understand,” said Grady. “I think we want Nextdoor to be a platform where residents can communicate with public agencies, with police departments, and we just need to work through how to make that experience better.”

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