This article titled “Nextdoor broke the social network mold. Could political ads make it just like Facebook?” was written by Paul Lewis in San Francisco, for The Guardian on Friday 5th May 2017 15.00 UTC
Nextdoor, the social network that helps neighbors talk to each other, has a billion-dollar valuation and a presence in streets from San Jose to Liverpool. But according to its CEO, none of the tech giants are interested in acquiring it.
“Facebook, Google, those guys haven’t actually come and talked to us,” said Nirav Tolia.
“It’s maybe hard, when you’re the big Goliath, to take some of these little mice seriously,” he added. “And we’re OK being a mouse … Because the mouse is getting stronger every day.”
Tolia, 45, is a fast-talking businessman with a string of startups and a penchant for hubristic mouse metaphors. He is the archetype of a California tech entrepreneur.
Nextdoor, in contrast, breaks the Silicon Valley mold.
The company – an unapologetically utilitarian place to share recommendations about dentists, find out where to dump a used sofa or receive alerts about local police activity – has been expanding across the US over the past seven years.
It has been a very different path from the shooting-star trajectory of viral, app-based startups. “We’re not Snapchat, we’re not Instagram,” Tolia said. “We don’t have 50 million users in six months.” One reason for the delayed growth has been Nextdoor’s reliance on a kind of crowd-sourced approach to defining neighborhoods, in which communities themselves draw the borders to their communities and name them.
But that “slow and steady” approach is starting to pay off, Tolia said, adding that the company now had “tens of millions” of users. (A company spokesperson later said the figure was usually described as “millions”.)
Still, the growth has been impressive. Five years ago, Nextdoor had just 7,000 neighborhood groups. Today, it claims to have more than 137,000 – which it says amounts to roughly 70% of US neighborhoods. And now the company is making forays into Europe, via recent launches in the Netherlands and the UK.
That incremental approach to expansion is unusual for social media companies. So, too, is Nextdoor’s professed commitment to ensuring a cordial online community.
It has been called “the anti-Facebook”, but in ethos, at least, it might be better described as the version of Facebook that Mark Zuckerberg wishes he had created.
Nextdoor threads and posts are by no means immune to controversy, but there is nothing like the febrile, combative tone that has contaminated other social media – in part because members are required to use real names and addresses.
But the startup does more than just verify identities; it rigorously enforces a culture of civility with rules that prohibit, for example, debate about “non-local issues that are known to be highly controversial”, even going so far as explicitly discouraging conversations about presidential politics.
Guidelines warn users they cannot “berate”, “belittle”, “troll” or “swear” and urge them to report any neighbors guilty of “over-posting, campaigning, repeatedly posting, or ranting about controversial, non-local issues”. (A rant is defined as: “ALL CAPS, excessive punctuation, provocative language, judgmental accusations, or repetitive explanations.”)
It is hard to imagine how Facebook, Reddit or Twitter would survive 24 hours under such strict rules. Tolia concedes these regulations run “completely counter” to Silicon Valley’s prevailing free speech culture. But he believes they’re essential.
“We have from the very beginning felt that community, and avoiding things that are divisive, are at the very core and foundation of what we’ve done,” he said. “It’s not something that we’ve had to bolt on after some crisis.”
That’s not entirely true. In late 2015, Nextdoor became known as a forum in which neighbors were using the popular “crime and safety” forums to flag racially biased reports of suspicious activity in their communities. The company amended its technology to block users from reporting suspicious activity on the basis of race alone.
Tolia said the episode only galvanized the company in its mission to stamp out conflict between people. “Nextdoor’s view is that you can disagree … without being disagreeable,” he said.
The key to monetizing Nextdoor is its cache of verified personal data. Tolia claims the company is on the cusp of offering a level of targeting that is even more granular and reliable than that of Google and Facebook, which dominate the $60bn industry in digital ads.
Nextdoor’s data could be especially useful to the burgeoning and controversial market in political advertising, in which companies are overlaying detailed data about voters to target the most persuasive ads.
But political ads will only work on Nextdoor if its users are discussing politics.
That may explain why Nextdoor, in a move that seemed to be contrary to its aversion to conflict, recently started hosting local forums about hot political topics.
“We want to create a kind of area in the service where those conversations can happen, and people can passionately argue one way or another,” Tolia said.
He played down a report in Politico that the move was intended as an entry into the lucrative market of political influencing. But he conceded that he had been approached by a company that “could take your address and put it through a voter database and see everyone you’ve voted for and then show you an ad that was personalized to your beliefs”. He added: “We felt that was not something that would sort of build our credibility as a company.”
Asked if he could guarantee that Nextdoor would not micro-target political ads, Tolia got a few words in before his PR executive, who was also present, interrupted. “Don’t!” she said. “Don’t guarantee all this.”
He was reluctant to be drawn further. “This is such a theoretical conversation,” he said. “Because we literally have never had any of these conversations.”
But what about the example he had just given about the advertiser who wanted to target voters through Nextdoor?
“Five years ago,” he replied. “We had one conversation.”
Then Steve Wymer, a former Republican operative recently hired as a vice-president at Nextdoor, who was also sitting in on the interview, intervened. He reminded his boss they “were in New York a couple of weeks ago and we talked to a political targeting ad group”.
Tolia nodded but added a clarification. “We just said we’re not interested,” he said. “And we haven’t followed up.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010