It has been a very different path from the shooting-star trajectory of viral, app-based startups. Photograph: Nextdoor
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 Nextdoors 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 Valleys prevailing free speech culture. But he believes theyre 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 weve done, he said. Its not something that weve had to bolt on after some crisis.
Thats 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. Nextdoors 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.
Nextdoors 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 youve 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. Dont! she said. Dont 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 were not interested, he said. And we havent followed up.