In this blog post, Rahim Kurwa sketches the contributions of his article “Building the Digitally Gated Community: The Case of Nextdoor,” which was published in the Platform Surveillance special issue of Surveillance & Society.
Nextdoor, the neighborhood communication application, increasingly appears in US news and social media. It pops up on social media when people post funny anecdotes or complain about others’ behavior, it becomes the topic of news coverage when controversies emerge on the application, and it is becoming increasingly integrated into public life as municipal agencies and services, including police departments, partner with the site to establish pathways of communication with its users. As the application has grown, I sought to place it in historic, political, and racial context for scholars interested surveillance and neighborhoods.
One way of understanding Nextdoor is to see it as a neutral, contemporary phenomenon — at worst, a more benign digital replacement for outdated neighborhood watch programs. But in this paper, I argue against this perspective, instead situating the application in the much longer history of how race is regulated in neighborhoods.
Nextdoor… [must be situated] in the much longer history of how race is regulated in neighborhoods.
In between the end of slavery and the 20th century rise of government and institutionally-produced racial segregation (by banks, real estate companies, federal agencies, and so on) was a period in which racial segregation was produced by individual participation in communal violence. That history tends to be forgotten amidst an important focus on how representative institutions such as federal government agencies (the Federal Housing Authority), institutional actors (real estate companies), and others began to play a massive role in aggressively segregating American society throughout the first half of the 20th century. Not only was individual and communal violence present at the start of the segregated century, but even once it was subsumed by much broader and more effective mechanisms, it still persisted, showing up as violent reaction to integration attempts in the 1960s, and hate crimes against Black residents moving into white neighborhoods well into the present.
Indeed, as the Fair Housing Act reduced the capacity for policymakers, institutions and individuals to discriminate in the sale and rental of housing, it has opened the door to a return to individual and communal efforts to assert racial order in neighborhoods. Today, when we read news articles or see viral tweets about racist behavior on Nextdoor, we should remember that history and think of how the platform, even if inadvertently, can function as a mechanism for communal prejudices to be focused, escalated, and most importantly translated into actions like dispatching police or evicting tenants.
In this paper I trace those historic connections and link Nextdoor to other examples of how policing is being used to regulate race in neighborhoods: like clearing the way for gentrification or being used to maintain racial segregation. I conclude by raising questions about the future of neighborhood surveillance applications, including Nextdoor’s competitors like Ring Neighbors. While this paper is focused on contextualizing and interpreting the application, there is no doubt that empirical research into its spread, use, and consequences will have much to contribute to literatures on surveillance, urban studies, and the study of race.