Posted on June 11, 2020

Inside Nextdoor’s ‘Karen Problem’

Makena Kelly, The Verge, June 8, 2020

Kalkidan G. moved to Rancho Santa Fe because it was one of the nicer neighborhoods in San Diego. The community was gated, the schools were some of the best in the area, and it was only a short drive from restaurants and grocery stores. Sure, it was pretty white, but being one of the few black families didn’t seem like an issue to Kalkidan. People were friendly enough, at least to her face. Then, she downloaded Nextdoor.

Kalkidan found the app, a neighborhood-focused social network, useful for local news and vetting repair companies. She’s used it for “everything” over the last few years, even if the comments on her posts about contracting companies would spiral into unwanted political conversations. She could brush that off. But as Black Lives Matter protests began to take place in her area, her white neighbors voiced their condemnation of the movement. All the vital information organizing peaceful protests was drowned out by comments of “All Lives Matter,” “#BeachLivesMatter,” and, at times, threats of violence.

One protest, planned by community high-schoolers, was scheduled to take place last week just five minutes down the road from Kalkidan’s home at a local shopping area. But her neighbors on Nextdoor were quick to assume it was a planned “riot.” One post alarming the neighborhood to the protest came from a Rancho Santa Fe community “lead,” or volunteer Nextdoor moderator, looking to verify these “riot” reports with local law enforcement on the platform.

“Apparently the Target is already boarded up,” the lead wrote. “I pray this doesn’t come to our neighborhood but everyone should plan to stay safe.”

The post’s comments quickly descended into a fight between users who shared the lead’s unwarranted fears and others who called her out for spreading misinformation. One neighbor threatened the protestors, writing, “If anyone gets unruly or violent, I plan on coming with pepper spray and a stun gun to help the police.” He continued, “Looters need to be taught a lesson. If they get violent, we need to hit them back 10 fold and protect our community.”

Last week, Nextdoor put out its first company statement in response to the death of George Floyd and the resulting protests. “Black lives matter,” the statement said. “You are not alone. Everyone should feel safe in their neighborhood.”

Despite its public statements, black users on Nextdoor are being silenced by community moderators after participating in discussions about race. Some are opting to leave the app altogether while others are considering moving out of their neighborhoods based on what they’ve seen on the platform. “As a black person, I don’t feel safe at all using it for anything,” Kalkidan told The Verge. {snip}


The Verge spoke with black Nextdoor users around the country who found the app opened a window into how their neighbors truly feel about them at this moment. Even though racists have lurked on Nextdoor for years, they’ve come out in full force over the last few days.


For years, Nextdoor has struggled to shed its reputation as a “snitch” app, used by white and wealthy users to racially profile their neighbors and report them to the police. There are meme accounts, like @BestofNextdoor, dedicated to sharing shockingly bad Nextdoor posts. The accounts highlight posts from “Karens” complaining about everything from children laughing outside to their neighbors’ Wi-Fi names. The problem has gotten so bad that, just in the last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) called for Nextdoor to “publicly deal w/ their Karen problem.”


{snip} All across the country, Nextdoor posts advertising protests get struck down by community moderators while racist and inflammatory messages, some calling for direct violence against black people and protestors, are left to stand.


Outside of the platform’s moderation problems, Nextdoor has spent years recruiting law enforcement onto the app, according to OneZero. Not only do police departments post on Nextdoor’s community forums, but the platform launched a function in 2016 that allows users to forward their own crime and safety posts directly to law enforcement. Serah Blackstone-Fredericks, a black writer from Oakland, found a post in her local Nextdoor forum last week that was just a photo of a black man on a bike in her neighborhood. “Suspicious man looking into Del Rio Cir Carports,” the post was titled. Singling out black people as “suspicious” is commonplace in Blackstone-Frederick’s community forum, and it has happened frequently enough that she decided to take things into her own hands last week, penning a letter to Nextdoor’s CEO Sarah Friar, demanding that the app forbid users from profiling each other based on race.


As of publication, Nextdoor has not publicly released new moderation guidelines in light of the recent protests. “We want all neighbors to feel welcome, safe, and respected when using Nextdoor. As a community-building platform, racism has no place on Nextdoor and is completely counter to our purpose, values, and Community Guidelines,” a company spokesperson told The Verge.

Still, nonprofits like Color of Change and even Nextdoor meme accounts like @BestofNextdoor are pushing the app to commit to a series of demands to ensure that black, indigenous, and other people of color feel safe on the platform.


Nextdoor may have launched as an app to “spread the word about a lost dog” or “find a new home for an outgrown bicycle” — and for many, it works pretty well as a hyper-local forum, a more accessible and less spammy alternative to Craigslist — but the company needs to ask itself: how useful is it if black members don’t feel safe on the platform? As the threats of violence and racist posts become increasingly prevalent and dangerous, black users are being forced off the app altogether. What is the value of a community-based social network that excludes people?

“Honestly, it boils down to this Nextdoor stuff and seeing what your neighbors are saying about you,” Kalkidan said. Last week, she called a family meeting with her husband and three kids, all under the age of nine, to talk about what she’s seen on Nextdoor. Because of her neighbors, Kalkidan said that she was forced to explain police brutality and systemic racism to her kids for the first time.

“It’s just so sad because we wanted to keep that innocence for our kids,” she said.

For Giwa, the app has reaffirmed her fears about her neighbors. “I don’t think it’s healthy for me to even have an account,” she said. “I’m definitely moving, but this is so emotionally corrosive.”