Neighborhood social networking startup Nextdoor has some very active users in Oakland, but those users aren’t using the platform as the company would hope.

An expose in last week’s edition of Bay Area alternative weekly East Bay Express describes how white residents of Oakland neighborhoods are using the “Crime and Safety” section of Nextdoor’s website to report “suspicious activity” by black residents.

In one 2012 instance, a user reported a light-skinned black woman walking her dog. "I don't recognize her. Has anyone described any suspect of crime like her?" the user wrote. Some on the site thanked her for raising her concern, while others questioned whether the post was necessary. Eventually someone said the woman in question had lived in the neighborhood all her life.

Earlier this year, complaints about music and parties at popular public park Lake Merritt spurred the Oakland Police Department to announce over Nextdoor that officers would increase patrols around the lake.

“In some cases, mostly white users of the site lament about the activities of people of color who have long hung out and held social events (at the park),” reports the Express. Known historically as “a hub of African-American culture on the West Coast,” Oakland has over the past several years faced an influx of white residents as the city gentrifies and property values and rents rise.

San Francisco-based Nextdoor, valued in March at $1.1 billion, has 78,000 neighborhood groups across the United States. More than 1,000 law enforcement agencies have partnered with the app, including 35 in the Bay Area.

The type of use described in the Express article is not in line with user guidelines, according to the company’s head of communications Kelsey Grady.

“Nextdoor's mission is to build technology that helps neighbors build stronger and safer neighborhoods, so any type of behavior like profiling that breaks down community is completely counter to this mission,” she said in a statement.

“We are committed to curbing racial profiling inside Nextdoor. We already explicitly prohibit profiling in our guidelines. We also have help center articles that explain how to appropriately report suspicious activity.”

The site guidelines state, “Assume good intentions in others and give them the benefit of the doubt,” and “Refrain from profanity or posting messages that will be perceived as discriminatory or profiling.”

The Express reports an instance in which a user threatened to report another user who had raised concerns about profiling occurring on the website, and another instance in which a user who had raised concerns was removed from her neighborhood group.

Nextdoor acknowledges its approach to dealing with profiling on the website could use some improvement.

“Moving forward, we are exploring ways to remind members of these guidelines when they post in the ‘Crime and Safety’ section. We are also investigating better systems for handling divisive discussions,” said Grady.

She said Nextdoor was working with local activist group Neighbors for Racial Justice “to receive their training and product feedback.”

It's not the first time a new technology service has been accused of enabling racial discrimination in gentrifying areas. In 2014, an app called SketchFactor debuted in the iTunes App Store, promising to help users avoid blocks with a high "sketchiness" factor -- language critics said was code for majority-black neighborhoods. SketchFactor's website is no longer available. 

Published on: Oct 13, 2015