Won't You Be My Neighbor
5 min read

Won't You Be My Neighbor

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I don't spend a lot of time on NextDoor, but I semi-frequently glance at the emails they send me. Similar to a social networks like Quora or Goodreads, I find the NextDoor emails to be just fascinating (or absurd) enough to justify scrolling through my Gmail "social" filter.

Earlier this June, I noticed a change in my NextDoor emails (sup Growth PM and/or Marketer! What test am I in?!?).

Goodbye May, Hello June!

Instead of orienting each email around my San Francisco neighborhood of Cole Valley (yes, Zazie does make a lovely brunch but I would suggest popping over a Tuesday evening for when they waive corkage fees), I now see actual names of people who I assume are my neighbors.

I found this initial change slightly jarring. Who the f*ck are Marlene, Alex, Dennis, and Edward? Why are they emailing me. My first reaction was "what latest new act of desperation is Facebook testing on me". No joke.

Once I realized these were the standard NextDoor "local update" emails now with a new subject line, I could start to see how this small but meaningful change came to fruition.

look closely: the subject line is 1:1 with the email body

I envision the Growth PM writing a Google Doc (or Coda, Notion, Quip, etc) pitching a hypothesis where changing subject lines from "Your [Neighborhood]" to "[First Name, Last Name] via NextDoor" should increase email open rates by ## %. Let's ship this small change to subject line and see if we can move a metric.

A small change like tweaking the subject lines feels emblematic of a larger organization that is running tried and true web 2.0 playbooks while holding a lofty vision that flies in the face of what made most web 2.0 companies successful.

NextDoor feels a lot like the well-intentioned but shallowly thought Facebook ideas that on paper make sense but in reality create a whole litany of dangerous externalities. Each small change I see at NextDoor further re-enforces my dread that this "neighborhood platform" is inching farther and farther away from actually helping people build become better neighbors to each other.

Our purpose is to cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighborhood they can rely on

- Craig Lisowski, Head of Data, Information Systems, and Trust via NextDoor's Blog (2/23/2022)

NextDoor's is built on a powerful and simple idea: if we want to build more kind neighborhoods, well, we firsts need to get to know our actual neighbors! I've long admired NextDoor's commitment to verifying their users as real life people who live in the neighborhoods they want to virtually join. When we first moved to San Francisco, I was impressed by how easy and effective it was to verify my address by getting an actual piece of physical mail from NextDoor.

via https://about.nextdoor.com/

Yet nearly every time I open NextDoor today, I rarely feel like I'm connecting with others. At best I feel like I'm eavesdropping on strangers at the local coffee shop (Wooden is great in Cole Valley). At worst I feel like I'm eavesdropping on strangers who don't realize I'm eavesdropping on them while waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store (Luke's Local is a tad expensive but the rotisserie chickens are great and a solid deal). Either way, I'm not really meeting anyone. I'm just finding new ways to stay in the ether.

I'll refrain from sharing screenshots of individual posts. I'm not here to shame any one individual neighbor. That's the opposite of what I want to do online (or IRL)!

I'm also not blaming NextDoor for all the problems of my own and so many other local communities. Nor am I faulting them for amplifying specific behaviors that we see all too often IRL and online. But I still can't get over this disconnect between "make real world connections with your neighbors in order to build a kinder community" and the reality of their product. Small changes like iterating on a subject line from [your neighborhood] to [your neighbor's real name] don't encourage me to reach out and introduce myself. If anything it reinforces feelings of disconnection as I'm overwhelmed by dozens of strangers all talking at the same time.

NextDoor's drive to connect me with my neighbors feels like it skipped a critical step. It feels like NextDoor is attempting to simulate connection before actually doing the work to connect us as people. It all leaves me feeling such a deep emptiness when I do wind up opening the NextDoor app.

notice how similar this looks to my emails! same content different screen.

This screenshot above is from my "Notifications" tab within the NextDoor app. It feels awfully similar to the emails I get (duh) and once again, I get it. I see how this feature came to be implemented in this manor. It all just feels like more noise. Even if there is genuine kindness and camaraderie there, it feels so hard to discern. It feels unearned. It feels like an accident and not the intent.

I'd love to see the draft document from a NextDoor PM titled something like "Neighbor Buddies" where someone details a concept that tried to match and introduce two or more people to each other because they have a specific reason to be introduced! Maybe it's due to a shared interest. Maybe it's due to a specific location. Maybe it's random! How did this map to any KPIs tied to durable retention? Why did this get de-prioritized or if it shipped, why did this experiment fail?

Who knows! I'll go back to ignoring most of my NextDoor emails now that it feels less like a neighborhood cork board at the local hardware store where you want to pull a number off a flyer to actually take that guitar for beginners lesson.

Or maybe I'm just an introvert who's lost the thread on a pretty narrow topic to begin with in the first place.