CEO Sarah Friar Describes How Nextdoor Is Curbing Racism

Nextdoor CEO Sarah Friar did not use the f-word—you know, Facebook—even once during her appearance at the all-virtual WIRED25 Conference on Wednesday. But the comparison between the two online social platforms, both moderated by a mix of automated systems and humans and often accused of fomenting distrust and hate, has been made many times. Friar was prepared to answer for it.

“It’s not growth at any cost,” Friar told WIRED senior writer Lauren Goode. Nextdoor, she said, thinks about how to make its corner of the internet a nicer place, even if that sometimes means discouraging users from posting.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Friar said, Nextdoor has seen a spike in sign-ups, driving home the importance of keeping the platform safe, useful, and hate-free. As WIRED has reported, Nextdoor has had a racism problem, and it set out to address it, beginning in 2015. Posters—who must use real names and verify that they live in the area before signing up—have used the forum to racially profile neighbors, target those they believe don’t belong, and stoke fear.

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The company released its first in a series of anti-racism speed bumps in 2017, requiring anyone posting about a suspicious incident to include two other descriptive attributes besides race. Last year, Nextdoor rolled out its “Kindness Reminder,” which uses machine learning to predict when a user might be about to post something unkind and prods them to reconsider. (Nextdoor’s system picks up on aggression and anger when sentences get shorter, are in all caps, and start losing punctuation, she said.) In July, Nextdoor asked all users to sign a “Good Neighbor Pledge,” with tenets including “be helpful,” “be respectful,” and “do not discriminate.”

Friar said making people less terrible online requires human moderators too. Nextdoor’s neighborhood operations team deals with the most tricky and sensitive posts. And since the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in May, Friar said that her company has been trying to diversify its volunteer moderator corps, who live in the neighborhoods where they post. (The company’s first cadre of moderator volunteers, who often brought the platform to their areas, were not always representative of the places where they lived, Friar admitted.) “Only the people who live in the neighborhood actually have local context,” she said.

The story of Nextdoor, Friar insisted, was a good one. Neighbors asking neighbors for help delivering prescriptions or groceries; neighbors rallying others around struggling local businesses. There’s some appeal: This summer, Facebook began experimenting internally with its own Nextdoor copycat product, called Neighborhoods.

Portrait by Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty Images


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