Photo: Aldo Crusher
The social network known for sniping neighbors and obsessive concern about package theft is finding its more helpful side.
Nextdoor, a site for people who live in proximity to each other, is filling up with posts from neighbors who want to help. There are offers to go on grocery runs for seniors, people bartering for in-demand goods like toilet paper and fresh veggies, unsolicited advice on social distancing, and attempts to coordinate musical numbers.
The company said there’s been an 80 percent increase in the number of people using the tool daily around the world in March, compared with the previous month.
In Oakland, Calif., this week, a man posted an update of what was in stock at the local grocery store and passed along a message from the owners that anyone in need could buy staples on credit. In Portland, Ore., the Low Bar Chorale organized a sing-along-from-home using Nextdoor, belting classics like “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty and “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper out of windows. In San Francisco, multiple people posted that they had seen others walking or running too close together in parks.
And in the District, a woman who was recently laid off in the coronavirus downturn used the site to crowdsource medical supplies and advice for her senior dog, who had tumbled off a sofa. Numerous neighbors offered leftover pet meds, a doggy stroller and even to donate toward any vet bills.
San Francisco lawyer Galin Luk says he’s noticed a big change on Nextdoor, with more uplifting and encouraging posts.
“Since the City’s shelter-in-place, neighbors are doing a much better job of self-filtering. Many of the neighbors appear fully aware of the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus and the direct short term and long term impact it will have on our immediate neighborhood, the city, and our country,” Luk said in an email.
Faced with unprecedented time at home while self-isolating to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, people across the United States have turned to social media to pass the time and feel less alone. On Facebook, people are sharing recipes, crafts and coping mechanisms alongside the usual conspiracy theories. The social network is trying to crack down on the latter trend.
Instagram has added a Stay Home story section to show people finding contentment in their homes and is coming out with a feature for browsing posts together over video. TikTok continues to be a feed of mostly soothing and happy weirdness to distract from the real world — with coronavirus content that reminds you to wash your hands. Twitter is, well, still Twitter.
And much of Nextdoor’s enormous increase in usage has been friendlier in nature.
The service works in a Web browser or mobile app, and lumps people together by their immediate neighborhood and lets them post just in their neighborhoods or to nearby areas as well. It’s also used by local authorities, such as the police or a health department, who want to get a message to a specific area. All the posts appear in feeds, and people can, and do, comment on them, often turning the feeds into arguments.
Jenn Takahashi, who runs the popular Best of Nextdoor Twitter account, says she’s receiving triple the usual number of submissions. For nearly three years, the account has highlighted posts people find in their own neighborhoods, such as epic petty arguments and mysteries about lawn gnomes.
After an early instinct to not post during a crisis, she’s been sharing the examples she thinks will bring people the most joy while they are home. The biggest trend she’s noticed over the past few weeks is variations of people offering to help each other in relation to the coronavirus, or coming up with ways to cheer up area children, such as making decorations or drawing on sidewalks.
“Another thing I’ve seen is Christmas lights. People want to put Christmas lights up to make the kids happy,” Takahashi said.
San Francisco Nextdoor user Shelia Keating says the viral outbreak, while potentially devastating to local businesses and residents in many ways, has brought out a positive side of her city and community she hadn’t seen much of before.
“My neighbors now smile, wave and say hello. We are coming together to check on each other to make sure everything is okay. We are trying to help each other through this difficult time,” Keating, a vice president of immunology at a biotech company, said in a message. “I am not sure I was ready for this bitter pill; SF needed something to shake it out of its complacency and maybe this is it. I don’t think we can ever be the same.”
Meanwhile, Nextdoor has added a feature to help people coordinate all their offers of help. The Help Map, launched over the weekend, lets people say where they are and whether they need or can offer help such as picking up groceries or taking a dog for a walk for an elderly neighbor.
“I’ve noticed that almost all the posts are about coronavirus. There’s a lost dog or cat here and there, but there are warnings, stories of folks not socially distancing enough, restaurants that are open for takeout and delivery, tips, offers of help,” Sonia Fernandez, who works at a San Francisco theater company, said in an email.
Still, some Nextdoor users are sticking with their precrisis habits. The crisis has even given rise to a popular new type of post that combines classic Nextdoor tut-tutting with a coronavirus twist.
People are social-distance shaming anyone they see, such as joggers outside their windows or kids on the street who aren’t staying far enough from each other. In the District, one post addressed to the “10 girls that congregated and then ran around the perimeter of Meridian Park at 6:30 am this morning” asked people to practice better social distancing and to consider the impact of their actions on others. In Oakland, someone complained about people playing soccer, throwing Frisbees, climbing on play structures and taking a boxing class at the city’s central Lake Merritt.
Then there are the more dangerous posts. Racism toward Asian Americans is surfacing in posts, as well as lots of unsupported advice, such as people recommending alternatives to toilet paper or suggesting that neighbors microwave their mail to get rid of any traces of the virus. (Editor’s note: Do not microwave your mail.) And then there are the coronavirus conspiracy theories, including that the virus is related to 5G networks or was created in a lab.
Nextdoor says it is taking steps to counter misinformation on the site, including working with authorities such as the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local government agencies to post reliable information about the coronavirus. It also has a “covid-19” information reminder to nudge people toward the more reliable information. People can also report any misinformation they come across.
“Coming together to prevent panic and the spread of misinformation is critical and therefore requires the assistance of all neighbors, including members, local businesses, and public agencies, which includes health officials,” said Nextdoor spokeswoman Edie Campbell-Urban.
Takahashi, who runs the Nextdoor-focused Twitter account, said some of the usual bad behavior is still mixed in — although she’s choosing not to share it.
“It still really is Nextdoor. It’s the good stuff, people trying to be more lighthearted. All of those topics that are synonymous with Nextdoor are still there but kind of amplified,” Takahashi said. “I wish I could say everything is very warm and fuzzy.”
Still, many users are reporting new and entertaining uses for the site. Some are trying to come up with the next viral neighborhood moment, like residents in Italian cities singing the national anthem from their balconies, or people across Europe clapping and cheering at 8 p.m. to show health-care workers their gratitude.
In Los Angeles, locals have tried communal singing of “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion, and in Brooklyn, some residents are pushing for songs from the musical “Hamilton.” In Minneapolis, one woman stepped outside her door and sang “Imagine,” even though she was the only person on her block participating. She posted that it felt good, if a bit embarrassing.
For Amy Faust, a writer and benefit auctioneer in Portland, Ore., an attempt to organize a singalong degenerated quickly over the song choice. “Hallelujah” was deemed too much like a dirge, “Don’t stand so close to me,” too pervy. “The song choice tore us apart,” Faust said.
Still, she appreciates the change in tone on social media sites such as Nextdoor, even if she doesn’t think it will last.
“I’ve lived on this earth for too long,” Faust said. “I remember September 11 and remember how everyone said we were going to be so different to each other after, and we were not.”