That Online Thing Spawns Emily Post-Type Behavior, Right?

July 21, 2021

Friendly virtual watering holes or platforms for alarmists? PC Magazine reports, “Neighborhood Watch Goes Rogue: The Trouble with Nextdoor and Citizen.” Writer Christopher Smith introduces his analysis:

“Apps like Citizen and Nextdoor, which ostensibly exist to keep us apprised of what’s going on in our neighborhoods, buzz our smartphones at all hours with crime reports, suspected illegal activity, and other complaints. But residents can also weigh in with their own theories and suspicions, however baseless and—in many cases—racist. It begs the question: Where do these apps go wrong, and what are they doing now to regain consumer trust and combat the issues within their platforms?”

Smith considers several times that both community-builder Nextdoor and the more security-focused Citizen hosted problematic actions and discussions. Both apps have made changes in response to criticism. For example, Citizen was named Vigilante when it first launched in 2016 and seemed to encourage users to visit and even take an active role in nearby crime scenes. After Apple pulled it from its App Store within two days, the app relaunched the next year with the friendlier name and warnings against reckless behavior. But Citizen still stirs up discussion by sharing publicly available emergency-services data like 911 calls, sometimes with truly unfortunate results. Though the app says it is now working on stronger moderation to prevent such incidents, it also happens to be ramping up its law-enforcement masquerade. Ironically, Citizen itself cannot seem to keep its users’ data safe.

Then there is Nextdoor. During last year’s protests following the murder of George Floyd, its moderators were caught removing posts announcing protests but allowing ones that advocated violence against protestors. The CEO promised reforms in response, and the company soon axed the “Forward to Police” feature. (That is okay, cops weren’t relying on it much anyway. Go figure.) It has also enacted a version of sensitivity training and language guardrails. Meanwhile, Facebook is making its way into the neighborhood app game. Surely that company’s foresight and conscientiousness are just what this situation needs. Smith concludes:

“In theory, community apps like Citizen, Nextdoor, and Facebook Neighborhoods bring people together at time when many of us turn to the internet and our devices to make connections. But it’s a fine line between staying on top of what’s going on around us and harassing the people who live and work there with ill-advised posts and even calls to 911. The companies themselves have a financial incentive to keep us engaged (Nextdoor just filed to go public), whether its users are building strong community ties or overreacting to doom-and-gloom notifications. Can we trust them not to lead us into the abyss, or is it on us not to get caught up neighborhood drama and our baser instincts?”

Absolutely not and, unfortunately, yes.

Cynthia Murrell, July 21, 2021

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