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Local social networks are often filled with just as much misinformation, racism, and toxicity as global platforms, with effects that can be even more severe.
October 3, 2022
By Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci & Ethan Zuckerman
Cameron Childs’ parents own a beach house in Bethany Beach, Delaware. One day his wife and daughter, who are both Black, headed there for a vacation. Later that same day, Cameron told The Root, he received a notification on local social network Nextdoor titled “Spook Alert,” a phrase used by his parents’ neighbors in Bethany Beach when Black people are spotted in the neighborhood. As he read the posts, he realized the alert was about his wife and daughter, who had just arrived at the beach house. Someone had called the police to report a “suspicious woman” trying to break in. Thankfully, the investigation ended quickly and peacefully when Cameron’s wife explained the situation to the police.
Unfortunately, Cameron’s story is rather common on Nextdoor. Another reported incident involved a man who often walks home from work late at night, waking up to see Nextdoor posts describing him as a “dark, suspicious man” casing houses and cars. The discussion culminated in people cheering on a fellow neighbor who said he took his gun and drove around to investigate.
The problems of social media are often chalked up to anonymity and alienation. If only people had to use their real names and live and work among the people they interacted with, then they wouldn’t behave so badly! Local social networks on platforms such as Nextdoor and Facebook Groups provide a natural experiment to test this hypothesis. Unfortunately, local social networks are often filled with just as much misinformation, racism, and toxicity as global platforms, with effects that can be even more severe, thanks to local social networks’ direct connection to the offline world.
This is a phenomenon we’re calling the “local paradox”: Local social networks are expected to be healthier spaces for online conversation because they are grounded in real-world relationships and places, but, in practice, they can be just as or more toxic than global platforms. Anyone who’s been at a school board meeting can understand the roots of this paradox. Discussions about local issues like schools, neighborhoods, and crime are charged because they directly affect people’s lives. Further, the norms of offline life don’t translate online, even for local social networks. Thus local social networks often combine digital disinhibition—in which people dehumanize their interlocutors—with the passions raised by discussions about schools, neighborhoods, and crime.
The local paradox is important because local social networks are increasingly filling the gaps left behind by struggling local institutions—disappearing civic associations, dying local media, and hollowed-out state and local governments. For citizens who live somewhere not covered by a local newspaper and who are not intimately involved with local politics, their only view of events in their town may be through local social networks.
Fortunately, we believe the local paradox can be overcome. Our work studying local social networks, developing local social networking software, and experimenting with local social networks in partnership with local governments, nonprofits, and media has revealed a potential solution: networks that are values-driven, closely moderated, trusted, and local. This formula has the potential to preserve the fundamental good at the heart of local social networks, while addressing the unhealthy aspects that are partly a result of their novelty and underinvestment.
Local civic engagement is a crucial part of our lives. Engaging locally, with the people and organizations in our neighborhood, town, or city, represents our most direct and consistent connection to society. Whether it’s a local church, sports league, or school board, this is where much of ordinary people’s civic life happens. In the United States the importance of localities is enshrined in our constitution, with federalism ensuring that state and local governments play a significant role in people’s lives. 90,000 local governments collect and spend billions of dollars every year on public services like roads, education, and parks, while also making decisions that determine where you can build housing, whether you can start a business, and how late the local bar can stay open.
Three major explanations have emerged for the decline in local civic engagement in the US in recent decades: eroding social capital, the nationalization of American life, and the decline of local newspapers. Social capital—the relationships and trust that promote civic engagement—has decayed as modern life has become more individualized and less communitarian. Further, as people’s identities have become more linked with national attachments, their connection to local communities has weakened, making them less knowledgeable and less interested in local affairs. Finally, the decline of local newspapers has decreased the supply of trusted information and undermined the shared sense of community that facilitates civic engagement. The pandemic only exacerbated these factors by forcing isolation, encouraging remote work, and shutting down many of the local institutions that contributed to local civic life.
The rise of local Facebook groups, Nextdoor forums, and “mutual aid networks” can be seen partly as a bottom-up response to this institutional loss.
The problems on local social networks can seem somewhat surprising. Local social networks usually require your real name and host discussions between people who often know and interact with each other offline. Anonymity and alienation are common factors people cite for the pathologies of online discussion, so shouldn’t local networks be respectful and productive spaces for discussion? Instead, what we see is that local social networks are often home to racism, toxicity, and misinformation, which prevents them from achieving their full potential as spaces for building strong local communities in the digital age.
Some of these problems can be chalked up to novelty and underinvestment. Local social networking is relatively new—Nextdoor launched in 2011—and receives less attention and investment than global social networking.
Some of these problems are a result of the contentious nature of local issues. Discussions about local issues like schools, neighborhoods, and crime are charged because they directly affect people’s lives. And in recent years, with the nationalization of American life, those local issues have become tied to national political identities, making local discussions even more charged. A recent New York Times series, “The School Board Wars,” explored this dynamic, investigating fights in local communities over school reopenings and curriculum changes. It found that people often split based on their national political identities and interacted not as apolitical neighbors but as combatants in an existing culture war.
Finally, some of these problems may be a result of the dominant approach to building and running local social networks. These networks are built and run by global corporations who manage hundreds of thousands of local networks with an eye toward maximizing profitability.
Nextdoor and Facebook have taken an approach that was forged in one context—running global social media platforms with billions of users—and are applying it to local networks with hundreds or thousands of members, imposing the same structure on counties in rural Kansas as they do to city blocks in New York City. They rely on local volunteers to govern the networks, chosen not because of their fitness for the role, but simply because they were the first to create a group. At the same time, they outsource moderation decisions to workers in Phoenix or the Philippines who have no idea that a proposed local tax increase is actually .01 percent, not 10 percent, or that the school board isn’t proposing a radical, illegal change to the district’s curriculum but a routine update based on state guidelines. Further, the companies do little to encourage accountability, institution building, or integration with existing community structures (beyond opaque partnerships with police, which may explain why so many of these groups resemble neighborhood watch groups). The result is a mishmash of networks that often fall short of their potential.
Building and running local social networks is already hard enough. Compounding it with an approach that ignores local knowledge and maximizes profits above all else causes local social networks to be shells of what they could be, further contributing to the sense that our local communities are crumbling. It also limits innovation: Nextdoor is assuming that an approach to local social networking that emerged in a wealthy, San Francisco Bay Area neighborhood should be the same one used for neighborhoods across the country and the world. The local paradox is due in part to factors beyond our control—local social networks are relatively novel spaces for hosting discussions about contentious local issues—but a significant factor is the current one-size-fits-all, profit-maximizing approach to building and running them.
Our research has revealed a potential solution to the local paradox: networks that are values-driven, closely moderated, trusted, and local.
Without close moderation, local social networks risk racism, toxicity, and misinformation. But for close moderation to be acceptable to residents, they need to trust the people who are moderating and running the network and understand the values animating their decisions. Finally, it’s a lot easier for people to trust the organization running the network if that organization has a local presence.
Imagine if, instead of your neighbor sporadically moderating content according to his or her whims, a team of trained moderators, with roots in your local community, were dedicated to governing the space. Instead of politically motivated content removals and rapidly-spreading misinformation, we might see productive discussion and useful information distribution. Further, imagine if, instead of waiting on a global platform to support partnerships with local institutions beyond the police department, your local network could pursue those partnerships itself, and build the necessary features into the platform as it sees fit.
The components of our formula are similar to approaches taken by social infrastructures like news media, police departments, and cultural organizations. That makes sense, because we think that local social networking is a social infrastructure. Unfortunately, it’s not often run like one.
A leading example of a local social network that lives up to its responsibilities as a social infrastructure is Front Porch Forum (FPF), a local social network that serves every town in Vermont and a few in bordering communities in New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. FPF uses a team of moderators that review each post to make sure it adheres to the site’s code of conduct which bars personal attacks and behavior “counter to its community-building mission.” That helps keep the discussion friendly and constructive. Additionally, instead of making content immediately available online, posts and replies are published once a day. The slower pace encourages users to think more about what they’re saying. Testimonials from residents speak for themselves:
“FPF connects me to my community, makes the bond between us stronger, [...] I look forward to reading it every night. I'm not a Facebook fan but I LOVE Front Porch Forum.”
“When I moved the first thing I did was look for Front Porch Forum. It is a vital key in any neighborhood [...] It keeps us up to date on current events, and to share a laugh or two. Every neighborhood in America needs one!”
FPF was founded by Michael Wood-Lewis and his wife Valerie. They got the idea for FPF in 2000 after they moved to Burlington, Vermont from Washington, D.C. Their son had developed cerebral palsy and they realized they needed support from their neighbors. However, they struggled to build connections with the community.
Wood-Lewis thought the forum would make it easier to connect with neighbors and for newcomers to become locals. It was a hit and by 2006 the forum began to expand to other towns in Vermont. The growth was organic: Typically, towns would approach FPF and pay a one-time fee to cover the startup cost for their town. Eventually, with the help of two government grants, FPF expanded statewide.
That organic growth was key to maintaining one of the key differences between FPF and Nextdoor: proactive moderation. FPF uses a team of moderators that review each post to make sure it adheres to the site’s code of conduct before it’s posted. That helps keep the discussion friendly and constructive. In contrast, moderation on Nextdoor is done reactively and largely handled by a small set of volunteers.
Nextdoor’s governance structure means moderation can be messy, frustrating, and biased. For example, in the wake of George Floyd’s death there were many reports of people being banned or having posts deleted when they advocated for solidarity with local protests, while racist and inflammatory posts went unpunished. Similarly, there were a number of reports of moderators with anti-vaccine views removing posts that expressed support for COVID-19 vaccination efforts while leaving up posts that pushed misinformation about vaccines and the pandemic. FPF faced the same contentious issues, but they had a process, a set of values, ties to the local community, and trust from their users to help them navigate it.
It’s worth questioning whether FPF is a product of northern New England’s social norms and the region’s relative ethnic and cultural homogeneity. However, we believe a platform that is values-driven, closely moderated, trusted, and local can be successful anywhere. Wood-Lewis explains that early skeptics of FPF believed it could only work in the city of Burlington, or in Chittenden County. He concedes that a social network in New York City or rural Montana might have different norms and practices, but believes the model of careful moderation and local trust is universalizable.
Our own experience supports this optimism. We’ve created a local social network that serves our college town, Amherst, Massachusetts. It’s run by members of our research team in partnership with the town government. Our preparation for rolling the network out included a survey of the community about local civic engagement and a mapping of existing civic groups—both helped us identify potential partners and build an understanding of civic life in the community. This fact-finding and coalition building, along with prior work, informed our approach to building and running a network that was values-driven, closely moderated, trusted, and local. Such an approach requires time, commitment, and local presence—it’s not the kind of thing a global corporation can do, nor an untrained volunteer.
Though participation has been limited, it’s been productive and healthy. We believe this was the result, in part, of careful scaffolding of participation. We approach discussion topics as if we were local reporters, understanding the likely issues, polling participants on potential controversies and soliciting input much as we would in a “person on the street” interview. Our first major discussion complemented a public meeting about the future of a local park. We hosted dozens of comments and avoided toxicity. Participants noted the usefulness of the space, and we received important feedback:
“I think that this type of conversation and engagement is sorely needed…My main input is that you are not known to folks. One idea is to partner with community organizations that are known and trusted, and get them to post.”
In response, we’re recruiting “local champions”—well-known and trusted members of the community—to join, participate, and advocate for the platform as a way of building trust and buy-in from residents.
More experimentation is necessary to find the right mix of technology, scaffolding, and governance to make local social networks flourish, and it’s likely that each community will have a different recipe. In some communities, a local social network may fill the role previously held by the local newspaper’s editorial page, as a place for discussion about important issues in the community. In others, a local social network may serve as a tool for organizing mutual aid. In some cases a local social network may fill multiple roles, or there may be multiple local social networks filling different roles. Some networks may form novel organizations to govern themselves, while others may rely on existing local institutions.
To continue to experiment with and spread this model, significant investment is needed from leaders in government, nonprofits, and media.
It’s difficult to customize, control, and run the software needed for a local social network. Existing commercial solutions are expensive and limit a community’s ability to control and customize the software and data. Open-source software often requires technical expertise to set up, manage, and customize. This means that the group of people able to experiment with local social networks is limited to those able to pay for technical experimentation and those with the knowledge to experiment themselves. To truly enable a flowering of local social networks, we need a system that enables people with minimal technical expertise and money to spin up their own custom and controllable social networks.
However, we actually think the technical challenges pale in comparison to the social and institutional work needed to build healthy local social networks. Building a healthy community online takes time, commitment, and trust—just like any other institution. Local social networks will not be overnight successes and will require slow, difficult work to grow—the opportunities to move fast and break things in local social networking have already been taken.
Existing local institutions whose mission and values intersect with local social networking—like local media—should consider creating a local social network. In one promising example, Wick Communications, a family-owned local newspaper company in the Mountain West, has created NABUR (the Neighborhood Alliance for Better Understanding and Respect), a local platform organized around Wick’s local newspapers and moderated by their local journalists. These projects, when done correctly, can lead to revenue and provide significant value to a community.
Local governments should look to encourage, partner with, and develop their own forms of local social networking. The pandemic has demonstrated the value of making local government more accessible through virtual options; local social networking is a logical next step and one that we’ve seen have promising results in our own experiments with local governments.
Funders of all types should consider investing in people and projects that are working on local social networks, from tackling the technical barriers to organizing and running a network. Beyond the obvious benefits of connecting a local community, healthy local social networks can offer a practical education in democracy, socializing local residents into running good meetings, compromising on controversial issues, and listening to people they disagree with.
However, local social networks cannot rely solely on grants for revenue. Fortunately, there seems to be a path to sustainable revenue through local advertising and donations. The scalability of local social networks means that you don’t need a huge organization to run a successful network. Front Porch Forum is able to support a staff of 24 full-time employees mostly through local advertising, along with subscriptions for local politicians and semi-annual NPR-style donation drives. FPF’s 24 employees serve 210,000 members, covering the entire state of Vermont and parts of New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.
Local social networks contain the seeds of an important innovation in local community building. With the right approach, they can help address some of the most important problems facing local communities today—declining social capital, struggling local media, and hollowed-out state and local governments. However, to reach their full potential local social networks will have to overcome the problems presented by the local paradox—namely racism, toxicity, and misinformation. Our formula—networks that are values-driven, closely moderated, trusted, and local—presents a possible solution. We’re confident that with the right investments, local social networks can be an important part of building strong local communities in the digital age.
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