Josh and Jenn Carlson in the Gaga Pit the build with the help of Nextdoor <span class='image-credits'>Doug Coombe</span>

From neighborliness to name-calling, Washtenaw County Nextdoor is what you make it

The basic idea behind Nextdoor – a San Francisco-based, hyper-localized social network that made its U.S. debut in 2011 – inevitably seems like an ironic Digital Age joke. Once, people got so lost in their screens that they no longer got to know their neighbors, so they went online to meet and communicate with them …

 

Absurd as it may sound, it’s a pretty apt description of Nextdoor. And although the company releases little in the way of usage statistics, scores of neighborhoods in the Ann Arbor area have active Nextdoor communities, suggesting that the site is pretty popular here.

 

So has Nextdoor – with its daily rundown of ephemera like service provider recommendations, lost pet notices, and item giveaways (and requests) – altered locals’ sense of their neighborhoods and the people who live there? Has it cultivated harmony or discord between residents?

 

Perhaps not surprisingly, the answers vary broadly based on where you live, what you’re looking to Nextdoor to provide, and how you engage with the platform. Users must post under their real names, so anonymity isn’t an option. Neighborhood pages have "leads," who act as moderators, so these individuals can play a key role in setting the tone for posts and conversations.

 

For the most part, locals seem to use Nextdoor for pragmatic ends, such as sharing information when there’s a power outage.

 

"I have found it most useful for getting and unloading stuff," says Lorin Burgess, 46, a social worker who lives in northwest Ann Arbor. "When one of (my daughters) has outgrown a bike, I’ll post about it. Sometimes I get $20, sometimes I don’t care and just give it away. And moving boxes – more than once, I’ve gotten rid of them, and I’ve picked them up from places. That’s a great use, I think, so we can constantly recycle things."

 

Many of the locals who seem most satisfied with Nextdoor are those who already know (and like) their neighbors and find that the platform reinforces their positive feelings.

 

Jenn Carlson, 44, an engineer who lives in Pittsfield Township, went to Nextdoor when her son’s Troop 4 Eagle Scout project ran into challenges at the ground quality level while building a gaga pit for kids to use at Pittsfield Elementary.

 

"We wanted to find some fill dirt to improve the situation," Carlson says. "So on a whim, I reached out on Nextdoor to see if anyone had some, as it is often the kind of thing people are looking to get rid of. It turns out that someone working at Nature’s Garden Center in Saline saw the post and immediately offered free dirt for his project. It felt like a huge success, and (an example of) all that is great about social media."

 

College academic advisor Shawn Ricoy, 55, who lives in the Ann Arbor Woods area, loved seeing the way her neighborhood came together via Nextdoor to support displaced Allen Elementary students following severe flooding in the school building in August 2016. Similarly, after seeing a Nextdoor post about a couple of girls who were collecting cans and bottles to raise money for a trip to visit Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low’s birthplace (Savannah, Ga.), Ricoy reached out a few times to contribute.

 

"Eventually, I got a postcard from the girls, from Savannah, saying, ‘Thank you. We really appreciate it. It’s been a great trip,’ and that just made my day," Ricoy says. "If anything, … (Nextdoor) has reminded me of what a great part of town we’re in."

 

In a uniquely Ann Arbor kind of coincidence, Burgess once used Nextdoor to find a new home for an old Story and Clark organ. He posted a picture and description of the organ, and a neighbor who maintains a summer residence in the former Story and Clark factory in Grand Haven responded.

 

"He and his wife have become Story and Clark enthusiasts, and they have a few small pianos and organs on display in their building," Burgess says. "This provided an excellent addition to their collection, and he came out with a big flatbed truck and hauled it away."

 

Interestingly, two of the thorniest, most-debated topics on Nextdoor at the national level – noise and dog clean-up complaints, which earned mention in a recent story in The Atlantic – don’t appear to be significant points of conversation around Ann Arbor at all. But the area does align when it comes to one of the platform’s biggest selling points for users: business recommendations.

 

"It’s great for referrals and recommendations, especially for household services like painters, repairs, and handyman services," Ricoy says. "I’m going to trust the people in my area, who likely have a house of a similar age to mine, and who can probably pay this price, but not that price, for the work."

 

Some neighborhoods are taking Nextdoor in new and unexpected directions. The West Willow Nextdoor in Ypsilanti Township has ventured into the educational sphere, with some neighbors posting about local birds and wildlife. Nextdoor has also provided a valuable means of communication between Ypsi Township residents and their government, as in one case when a user complained about bright lights from the Nexus pipeline construction project illuminating her home at night. A township official responded the next day, and the lights were off the next night.

 

However, not all locals' experiences with Nextdoor are positive.

 

"It doesn’t work when it’s used for more than it should be – whatever that is," says Don Alles, 63, a retiree who lives in Ann Arbor Hills. "There was a time when I deactivated any (Nextdoor) notifications when people started going deer-crazy a couple winters ago."

 

Alles is referring to Ann Arbor’s deer cull controversy, which began in early 2016 when the city hired sharpshooters to kill deer in local parks to address overpopulation issues.

 

Significantly, nearly every person interviewed for this story noted that deer cull conversations on Nextdoor were some of the most emotionally fraught, extensive, and divisive ones to appear on the platform locally.

 

"I followed that (conversation on Nextdoor) for a while, until it got to be too much," Burgess says. "I know a few people were removed because of (their posts). And whenever there’s a city council election, people are pretty intense about that, too."

 

Locals report other negative effects of Nextdoor, including occasional incidents of racial profiling (of the "suspicious person in the neighborhood" variety) and mean-spiritedness. In a Facebook conversation about Nextdoor, Ann Arbor resident Julie Weatherbee wrote, "Mostly, … it is a comments section write large. Lots of people being terrible to their neighbors and elected officials, without even trying to hide behind a pseudonym. I find it pretty depressing."

 

Lizz Trudeau, 38, a Kerrytown resident who works for a nonprofit educational organization, first joined Nextdoor years ago, when she lived in Brooklyn, N.Y. Although she generally likes the platform, she longs for more balance in terms of representation.

 

"I find that Nextdoor has few voices, and therefore the conversations tend to bring out those same voices over and over," Trudeau says. "Threads get overwhelmed by the same people with strong opinions, and nothing really gets solved. It’s possible that people read and get new perspectives, but the platform doesn’t show fruitful results to me. It feels more like the person on a soapbox shouting from the Diag, with the rest of us just walking by, on to our next place."

 

So, as with most social media platforms, Nextdoor's net positives and negatives are determined by the way locals choose to use it: as a tool, or as a bullhorn.

 

Most people interviewed for this story said they hadn’t met new people or felt more connected because of Nextdoor. But the platform has shaped some residents' sense of their community.

 

"Nextdoor has affirmed for me that Ann Arbor isn’t as progressive as its reputation," Trudeau says.

 

But Alles – who sometimes uses Nextdoor to announce and promote events like house concerts – says, "I believe it provides just one more opportunity to connect with like-minded people and neighbors. I now know people – really met and know – that I did not before (joining Nextdoor). And the digital/social aspect of the app just allows those connections to be made more rapidly and broadly."

 

Meanwhile, Burgess is using Nextdoor to organize a block party in his neighborhood this summer.

 

"I wouldn’t say that Nextdoor has changed my sense of my neighborhood," he says. "I’d put it more in the useful/convenient category. I haven’t formed any new relationships from it. But maybe that will change."

 

Jenn McKee is a freelance writer with a long history of covering arts and culture in the Ann Arbor area. She also has a pair of blogs: The Adequate Mom and A2 Arts Addict.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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