A Redefined Neighborhood
I joined Nextdoor, the local social media network, out of fear that I was missing out. Not missing out on a summer job walking dogs or weeding gardens, not missing out on a “gently used patio set” or “pink BMX bike,” but missing out on a source of entertainment and local comedy. I can’t recall exactly what prompted me to take the plunge last spring and join Mill Valley’s virtual community on Nextdoor. It may have been after an AP Biology class spent passing around a classmate’s phone and reading a heated comment strand about the party habits of Mill Valley teens. Or perhaps it was after I heard my mom relay updates of a distant neighbor’s posts about a family of foxes living in his backyard for seven days straight. Either way, I sat down in front of my computer and entered my home address of nearly eighteen years to finally “discover” my neighborhood, as the opening homepage boldly proclaimed.
After I had my address verified through text and endured the realization that the post notifying my neighbors that I had joined was not deletable, I entered what I came to realize was a huge and fascinating social experiment.
Mill Valley, divided into 13 neighborhoods of various shapes and sizes on the site, is nothing if not a prime example of Nextdoor’s booming success. The 13 neighborhoods collectively include over 9,300 users, roughly 65% of our population using numbers from the United States Census population estimate in 2015.
Nextdoor, founded locally in San Francisco in 2010, describes itself as “the private social network for you, your neighbors and your community” and its mission as taking the power of technology to “build stronger and safer neighborhoods.” While striving to make Mill Valley “stronger and safer” through Nextdoor seems like a bit of a stretch, the social network is certainly filling a new role in online communication. The delineation of neighborhoods mirrors actual micro-communities and the privacy settings restrict you to only see the profile details of people within your neighborhood. Your posts can reach as many as 9,300 people and you can see nearly that many people’s posts, but you can’t see post history, address or personal information, of anyone who isn’t in your own neighborhood. In this way it very accurately reflects our community and communication in it’s design – but it goes beyond this.
It successfully imitates our community in action as well as structure. The network takes every neighborly interaction and digitizes it. People have been leaving things at end of their driveways with a free sign on it since the beginning of time – now it’s a simple post on Nextdoor. Need a babysitter? Want to recommend a babysitter? Nextdoor. Handyman recommendation? Moving boxes? Nextdoor. Questions about local laws? Opinions on local courtesies? Complaints about anything and everything? All on Nextdoor as well.
This is where the entertainment comes in. Scrolling through my Nextdoor feed, I skim the hundreds of everyday posts, looking for those with an excess of replies. A woman’s post about a room of her house up for rent, seems anything but controversial until someone new to the community calls her price ridiculous. He is put in his place by a variety of neighbors, reminding him that just because a room for rent in Mill Valley costs more than renting your whole house in Petaluma did, doesn’t give him reason to be rude because “Mill Valley is a different place place from Petaluma!”. His reply? “Petaluma is definitely different from Mill Valley – the people are much nicer.”
“Bicycle – dog collision” has 91 replies. What started was a report of an accident witnessed on the bike path and a reminder that cyclist speeds should be kept in check and dogs kept on-leash, turned into an extensive 3 pronged argument. Was it the dog’s fault, the biker’s fault or the dog owner’s fault? The bicyclists blamed the dog owners and the dog owners said the bicyclists are crazy and rude. One women repeatedly commented that “this pro-bike mentality in Marin is disturbing!” only to be drowned out by those who said cyclists should not be generalized into one group. Then the whole conversation was taken on a tangent when someone abbreviated the bike path or multi-use pathway to “MUP” and faced a small uproar – “enough acronyms…rubbish!” and “it sounds ridiculous!” was the chorus of the peanut gallery.
Reading these comments is akin to sitting poolside at Scott Valley Swim and Tennis Club or walking through the Depot Square and eavesdropping on loud conversations that definitely seem like they should be private. Sometimes you can’t help but laugh, roll your eyes or occasionally want to throw your phone; for everything that opinionated Mill Valley-ians might have the audacity to say in person, they certainly have the audacity to say from behind a screen. Nextdoor has expertly captured all the benefits of our close-knit community, as well as the craziness of the place we live.