I was an occasional user of Streetlife, a website which functioned as a local bulletin board. It’s been taken over by the American site Nextdoor, which aims to serve a similar purpose. I have signed up for Nextdoor, along with several of my neighbours. Nextdoor seems to avoid one of the problems I had with Streetlife – in practice it wasn’t very local. I got fed up of reading about lost cats on the other side of Bath! I can configure Nextdoor to keep it focused on my own area. [I also wish the ‘Inbox’ was more accurately entitled ‘Messages’ or similar, as it contains outbound messages too.]
But I know that people are concerned that Nextdoor reveals people’s addresses to people they may not know. When you sign up, your full address is displayed to those in your neighbourhood. It is possible to configure your settings so that just your street is displayed, although some people don’t stay long enough, or aren’t bright enough, to find that out. Even then, if you are the only person in your street on Nextdoor, your address can be identified using the map where households who have joined the site are highlighted. Identity theft is a persistent worry – with good reason. I think Nextdoor is based on an American model of homogeneous neighbourhoods within which people trust one another. Many places in Britain are not like that. Here in Bath, social housing is scattered around the city, often because it was built on the sites of World War II bombing. One local neighbourhood (in the Nextdoor sense) includes both some of the most exclusive streets in Bath (or so their inhabitants would like to think!) and areas notorious for drug dealing, where the police have recently raided and shut down dens. In fact one of these drug dens was in a dilapidated Georgian house located right among expensive period properties occupied by the well-to-do.
So I think Nextdoor might do better to give people the option of displaying publicly only what their neighbourhood is, not their street, and/or not appearing highlighted on the map. These options should be offered clearly to people when they sign up.
The above is an edited version of a comment I put to Streetlife/Nextdoor. They defended the practice of displaying people’s names and streets as follows: ‘[Nextdoor] found that when everyone uses their real names and addresses, people are likely to feel more accountable, and conversation is more constructive and neighbourly. Neighbours are also more likely to feel confident to connect in the real world, rather than just online – and that’s what Nextdoor is all about.’
I haven’t noticed much constructive, neighbourly conversation on Nextdoor yet, but then there’s been no conversation of any kind in my neighbourhood. I suspect the cosy, chatty connections they project are just not going to happen round here. Not just between the social extremes in some neighbourhoods – and as I explained above they really are extreme – but even between similar nearby households in an area where snobbishness and isolationism are rife. Only yesterday I was in conversation with someone in my street, who broke it off abruptly when she found out I lived in the other half of the street from her – the half that is excluded from the residents’ association originally named after the whole street. When attitudes like that begin to change, I’ll start believing that Nextdoor is doing some good.