Cameron Childs’ parents own a beach house in Bethany Beach, Delaware. He told reporters at The Root that one day his wife and daughter, both who are black, headed there for a vacation. Later that same day, Cameron received an alert on Nextdoor, the local social network, titled “Spook Alert,” a phrase used by his neighbors in Bethany Beach when black people are spotted in the neighborhood. As he read the posts he realized that the alert was about his wife and daughter who had just arrived at the beach house. Someone had already called the police to report a “suspicious woman” trying to break in. Thankfully, the investigation ended quickly when Cameron’s wife explained the situation to the police and they left.

Unfortunately, Cameron’s story is rather common on Nextdoor. Another story from the same article describes a man who often walks home from work late at night waking up to see Nextdoor posts describing him as a “dark, suspicious man” casing houses and cars. The discussion culminated in people cheering on a fellow neighbor who said he took his gun and drove around to investigate.

Naked racism isn’t the only thing that happens on Nextdoor. Sometimes a photo of a dead hawk sparks a four-month long debate. Or a lost pet is found and outgrown bicycles are given away. Nextdoor’s hyperlocal and often toxic mixture of content has led it to be described as “a home for racial profiling” and “Twitter for old people.”

Nextdoor’s mission is to help “cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighborhood they can rely on.” Why does that laudable goal often take a backseat to racialized paranoia, exhausting debates, and absurd pettiness? Taking a look at an alternative may help.

Front Porch Forum (FPF) is a local social network that’s been described as “a model for online communities.” It serves every town in Vermont and a few in New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Michael Wood-Lewis and his wife Valerie got the idea for FPF in 2000 after they moved to Burlington, Vermont, from Washington, D.C. Their son had developed cerebral palsy and they realized they needed support from their neighbors. However, they struggled to build connections with the community … something flinty and taciturn Vermonters are somewhat famous for.

Wood-Lewis thought the forum would make it easier to connect with neighbors and for newcomers to become locals. It was a hit and by 2006 the forum began to expand to other towns in Vermont. The growth was organic: typically, towns would approach FPF and pay a one-time fee to cover the startup cost for their town. Eventually, with the help of two government grants, FPF expanded statewide (a great example of public funding for civic social media). 

That organic growth was key to maintaining one of the key differences between FPF and Nextdoor: proactive moderation. FPF uses a team of moderators that review each post to make sure it adheres to the site’s code of conduct (which bars personal attacks and behavior “counter to its community-building mission”) before it’s posted. That helps to keep the discussion friendly and constructive. In contrast, on Nextdoor moderation is done reactively and largely handled by the community. The person who starts their neighborhood’s forum is moderator by default, and crucially, moderators enjoy a monopoly over their neighborhood’s forum. People can’t create a different forum for their neighborhood if they disagree with their moderators’ practices. That’s true with FPF as well, but instead of dealing with potentially hostile neighbors when you have an issue, you can appeal to professional moderators who have an incentive to keep you on the platform. Nextdoor’s governance structure means moderation can be messy, frustrating, and biased. For example, this summer in the wake of the George Floyd protests there were many reports of people being banned or having posts deleted when they advocated for solidarity with protestors while racist and inflammatory posts went unpunished. Without the ability to create a competing forum or contribute to their forum’s governance, disaffected users either have to grit their teeth and accept the rules, or leave the platform altogether.

Another key difference is in the affordances of each platform. Nextdoor is like most social media: as soon as you post something it appears on the platform. That means posts and comments can quickly devolve. However, on FPF, instead of making content immediately available online, posts and replies are published once a day. It’s like a local newspaper landing on your neighbors’ front porches at the same time every day. The slower pace encourages users to think more about what they’re saying and FPF has even had people contact them asking to retract a comment before it appeared the next day.

Is FPF replicable? Or is it a product of northern New England’s social norms and relative ethnic and cultural homogeneity? The answer may become clearer as FPF expands, but for now, we are optimistic that it is replicable. We believe a platform that takes governance seriously, is designed for a specific purpose, and has ties to the communities it serves can be successful anywhere. FPF may be more polite or less political than other sites because of the region it serves, but that doesn’t mean the model couldn’t work elsewhere. A similar forum in New York City may be home to more profanity and casual conflict but that’s not necessarily an issue if it reflects the norms of the community it serves.

Local social media platforms like Nextdoor, FPF, and Neighbors fall under what we will call “local logic.” Local logic platforms share many of the characteristics of other social media platforms, except posts and communities are restricted to a local area which can be as small as a city block and as big as a rural town. They also tend to have strict identity requirements. Those two features are the key to what makes local logic unique. Using our axes, we can further analyze the characteristics of local logic platforms: 

  • Technology — centralized
  • Revenue model — varied, but advertising is promising
  • Ideology — social media organized around local communities
  • Governance — varied; typically require proof of real identity
  • Affordances — varied

Technology. Most local platforms use centralized technology, storing posts and user data in centralized databases. This is largely due to the business advantages of storing content and data centrally—companies are able to control their product and experience. However, it also makes sense because decentralization would be difficult for local platforms. Most towns and neighborhoods lack the resources to spin up their own site on a decentralized network. It’s much easier for a company to invest in building a site and then offer it to many different localities. That’s unfortunate because local social media with its thousands of unique communities could be a perfect place for decentralized tech to take hold. For example, differences in local government might mean that communities need different affordances from their platforms—a great use-case for decentralized networks. Addressing the challenges of making decentralization work for local logic platforms is a high priority for the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure.

Revenue model. Varied. Some rely on advertisements like Nextdoor. Some rely on subscriptions like Mycoop. Some are cross-subsidized like Neighbors (which is part of Amazon Ring). FPF relies mostly on advertisements which it supplements with subscriptions for politicians and local governments and donations. Also, as we mentioned above, FPF grew thanks to two government grants. Local platforms have a tremendous advantage when it comes to revenue models as they can offer advertisements with a great deal of certainty that they will be targeted locally and be seen by a lot of people. Local platforms that work in cooperation with local newspapers may be able to create a new revenue stream for local journalism.

Ideology. Local platforms aim to provide a social media experience that is organized around local communities. Local communities offer an experience that people can’t get from other types of online communities. Discussions about lost pets, local politics, crime, handymen, and block parties are best had with neighbors, not a dispersed community of offline strangers.

Mark Zuckerberg crudely explained part of the appeal of local platforms when he told colleagues “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” Local logic recognizes the truth of this, but also recognizes that it will always be a complement to platforms that focus on a broader set of concerns—Facebook’s “global community” will still dominate our attention.

Governance. There isn’t a settled governance model for local platforms. Some are centrally moderated like FPF and Neighbors (though FPF takes a much more proactive approach to moderation than most). Some are moderated by the community like on Nextdoor. However, most local platforms require real names and proof of residence. For example, Nextdoor either verifies that your mobile phone plan’s billing address matches the address you use on Nextdoor or they mail a letter containing a verification code to the address. 

Because local platforms verify that users live in the same community and typically require users to use their real names, you would think they would be free of much of the harmful content and governance problems that plague other social media platforms. In some ways that’s true. Local platforms face less of a threat from pseudonymous trolls and explicit content thanks to identity requirements. However, when governance is an afterthought, local social media can be hellish: the worst of Facebook but more closely connected to people’s offline lives and more easily translated into real-world action. Just like it’s easier to inspire people to look for a lost pet on local platforms, it’s easier to inspire people to grab a gun and go looking for a “suspicious” person.

Nextdoor’s monopolized community moderation is particularly susceptible to such issues. FPF’s proactive moderation and slower pace works well, but is less dynamic which means that many local conversations are likely held elsewhere. Nabur, a platform developed by a family-owned network of newspapers based in Arizona, is a local platform that is trying to split the difference. It looks and functions like Nextdoor or a local Facebook group but it’s organized around community newspapers and is moderated by local journalists—the hope being that local journalists’ domain expertise, ties to the community, and established trust will make it a better place to discuss local issues than Nextdoor or Facebook.

Affordances. The affordances vary widely on local logic platforms. Nextdoor looks a lot like Facebook. Front Porch Forum looks like a typical online forum, except it uploads new content once a day. Neighbors is centered around recorded clips from Ring doorbells, suggesting a dystopian surveillance-based version of YouTube.

Local communities are in many ways the ideal use-case for social media. Platforms organized around local communities have inherent structures that support healthy discussion like reputation and identity; they connect people who have shared interests and common goals; and they enable real-world community building. However, they are also prone to misinformation, paranoia, racism, and petty conflict which can make them spaces that breed division, not unity. Which way a platform leans comes down largely to its governance and affordances. As we saw with FPF and Nextdoor, two platforms with very similar goals can be very different experiences thanks to differences along those two axes.

If there’s a broader lesson from local logic platforms, it’s that solving the “identity problem” will not remove bad behavior from social media. People are very capable of being racist idiots even when everyone knows who they are and where they live. Good governance goes way beyond making people’s identities visible—it requires real thought about what speech is encouraged and shunned, what the consequences for harmful speech should be, and how design choices interact with it all.

Getting local social media right is important. Local platforms present an opportunity to strengthen social capital and civic life. At their best, they can keep residents informed about local issues, encourage civic organizing and action, and facilitate new connections and greater understanding. For all the negative stories about Nextdoor, there are plenty of examples like this: Syrian refugees in St. Louis who met a local through Nextdoor and created an organization that feeds the homeless and hosts a supper club; a woman in Georgia who saw a Nextdoor post about a black man being called a racial slur in her community and created an organization that brings people together to talk about racism. FPF has a whole blog dedicated to documenting the kindness and community the platform has fostered. The potential for local platforms to be positive spaces is clearly there—the key is building them in ways that encourage the best of us as neighbors, not the worst.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this blog incorrectly stated that FPF holds replies for 24 hours before posting them. Instead, FPF posts content once a day at a consistent time.

 

Image: "still from first episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" by katexic is licensed under CC BY 2.0.