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Bringing Real-Life Neighborhoods Online: NextDoor’s Privacy Issues

Written by Molly Talbert | on March 9, 2017 at 8:30 AM

Bringing real-life communities online - NextDoor's privacy issues

NextDoor reinvented the idea of a neighborhood listserv, and turned what used to be mass emailing into an online neighborhood community. To join, you simply confirm your address via credit card, phone number, or a postcard sent to your house. Once you have access to your neighborhood community, members share all sorts of information, such as garages sales, lost and found items, break-ins, or information about local elections.

It’s an empowering concept that has taken off - as of June 2016, over 100,000 neighborhoods in the United States had joined NextDoor. The idea of real places informing online spaces worked to NextDoor’s advantage.

Why not bring that momentum overseas, connecting more neighborhoods than ever before?

NextDoor’s rocky expansion to the United Kingdom

And that’s just what it did.

In the beginning of 2017, NextDoor acquired its counterpart in the United Kingdom, Streetlife. Streetlife was popular in the UK and functioned similarly. With its announcement, NextDoor told Streetlife users that the old platform would shut down and they would automatically receive a NextDoor account.

What could go wrong?

At first, this didn’t seem like an outrageous move. It makes sense that NextDoor, the acquirer, would shut down the old platform and move users to its platform. But it turns out it didn’t account for the impression made on new users - one that was simply off-putting to some Streetlife users, and actually dangerous for others.

The US, UK, and Europe - different cultures and different opinions on privacy

NextDoor says that its networks are secure and private, so the default setting for new users is to show their real full name and full address (down to the apartment number) on their profile. Streetlife just showed first names and listed the neighborhood someone lives in. In other words, the two platforms took different approaches to user profile information.

It might not seem like a huge deal, especially since you can go into your NextDoor profile and easily change the displayed information. But for people accustomed to more secure default privacy settings, it was an incredible shock, leaving users vulnerable - particularly because no one knew that was the default setting.

Although we share a common language, the US and the UK have their own unique cultures. It’s easy to assume that what works for one country will work for the other. In some cases, that’s true - everyone loves The Beatles, right? But in other cases, there’s push back - Marmite is the worst … to Americans (but apparently American food can also be weird for them).

It turns out that Americans and Brits also have very different views about privacy.

Richard Millington, founder of UK-based FeverBee, thinks those differences are partly due to history and culture.

In the US, people spend a lot of time defending freedoms of expression. Privacy is important, but when it comes to the internet, we focus more on protecting freedom of expression.

Europe has a different history so, unsurprisingly, they have different views:

“In Europe, freedom is more closely associated with anonymity,” said Richard. “Much of Europe has lived through times of mass spying networks where data was collected on individuals and used to make snap judgements. If you associated with the wrong people, visited the wrong places, made comments that could be misinterpreted, or weren't 'normal' in some way, you could be arrested or executed. This influences much of the EU's approach to policy and attitudes towards privacy (it's not explicit, but it's definitely implicit in how we perceive situations).”

The UK’s attitudes about privacy vary slightly from the EU. Richard says they aren’t quite as focused on privacy as the rest of the EU, but it still ranks as a high priority, and is certainly a higher priority than for many people in the US.

How did British users react to the different privacy settings?

British NextDoor users, who formerly used Streetlife, were shocked when they learned that their full names and addresses had been public, even for a short amount of time.

New users’ complaints and reactions varied widely. Some were upset NextDoor wasn’t more explicit in its explanation of the platforms’ differences. Some people worried about identity theft. Others instantly closed their accounts.

In some cases, that breach in privacy greatly and adversely affect an individual’s sense of physical safety. One UK resident found herself in harm's way when her address details became publicly available to her abusive ex-partner, who was in the same Streetlife community but didn’t know her exact address before the switch to NextDoor.

Most communities can remedy (or really, prevent) these issues with moderation, a strong set of terms and conditions, or handbooks with privacy guidelines. Normally, NextDoor has very tight security measures. But during this transition, there was a short window when users were unaware of the differences between platforms, and that had real consequences for some.

It comes down to empathy

When NextDoor decided to expand into the UK, it assumed that everyone was on the same page and users in the UK would have the same attitudes and values as users in the US.

Cultural differences aside, Richard thinks that in this particular instance, the real problem comes down to empathy, or lack thereof.

“The problem here is largely a lack of empathy,” he said. “NextDoor understood and articulated their position well, but I don't feel (as much as I love the team) that they empathized properly with users who have suddenly found all their opinions and statements connected to an address where someone can visit them. If they had, they could have provided a warning, made it clear what was about to happen and provided steps (before making the change) to help people protect themselves in these environments.”

This conclusion makes a lot of sense. No matter what company NextDoor had acquired, even if it was an American company, it should’ve taken time to study new users and ask itself, what are the main differences between our platforms? How should we notify new users of those differences and make the transition as smooth as possible?

That’s what empathy looks like in a situation like this. To be truly empathic, even as a company, don’t assume you know what your users want or will think of a major transition. Ask your community how they feel and really listen. Put yourself in their shoes.

Acquiring a new company is both exciting and tons of work. It’s easy to forget to check in with your new users and spend a moment looking at things from their angle. But the consequences of not practicing empathy can be bigger than consequences of slowing down and making deliberate decisions.

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Topics: Online Community Management, Online Community

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