6 min read

Business as usual in the anxiety economy

Business as usual in the anxiety economy
I just don’t feel safe anymore.

Letter No. 80: Includes dubious use of data (shocking!), corporate cynicism (no!), Crime Crime Grades (sic!), and someone with dirty dryer vents.

I live off of an exurban road a couple of miles from Reisterstown, Maryland, a town of ~27,000 situated northwest of Baltimore. Curious about the closest thing I have to a neighborhood, I joined an online social site called Nextdoor. Think of it as a localized Facebook. Its owner, Nextdoor Holdings Inc., boasts: “Nextdoor is the essential neighborhood app where community and camaraderie come together. It’s where real people, businesses of all sizes, and public agencies discover and discuss what matters in the neighborhood, so they can achieve things together, no matter how big or small.” It claims 88 million “verified neighbors.” One is always happy to be verified, especially as real people.

Nextdoor has three components—a social media website, a mobile app, and a daily email alert. When I began receiving these alerts, I noticed that one after another notified me of something scary and possibly criminal occurring near me. This level of daily rents in the social fabric did not jibe with personal experience. I’ve lived in the same house for 34 years and in that time know of only two crimes on my street: one theft from an unlocked car, one case of breaking-and-entering and robbery (my house, long story, won’t bore you). A neighbor’s son got arrested on suspicion of dealing, but as far as we know not from the house. Even including that incident, that’s an annual crime rate of .004 incidents per household. One clutches one’s pearls.

Was I being parochial and missing a broader local crime wave? Time to investigate. The FBI does not keep crime statistics specifically for my community, but various websites purport to gather, analyze, and compare crime stats. Bestplaces.net publishes a “crime scale” of 1 to 100, 1 being improbably safe and 100, I suppose, being “holy shit, step on the gas and get us out of here.” On this scale, my area has a violent crime rate of 36.5, compared to a national rate of 22.7. I’ve no idea what either number means. NeighborhoodScout.com claims that our local “total crime index” is 28 (according to its “SecurityGauge” technology, or algorithm or formula or whatever), meaning around here we’re safer than only 28 percent of American cities. Who knew. At least it says I live in the second-safest part of town, which is a comfort. It also reports that there are 70 annual violent crimes and 384 annual property crimes, but cites no year to define the annual part. Perhaps those are mathematical constants, like the golden ratio or pi.

CrimeGrade.org claims that “a crime occurs every 10 hours 17 minutes (on average)” in my locale, but does not cite a source or how the rate was calculated. “Your chance of being a victim of crime in [my vicinity] may be as high as 1 in 20 in the south neighborhoods,” its website says, and provides a helpful color-coded map. Adjacent to my immediate surroundings is an area colored an alarming red, which means an F in violent “Crime Crime Grades.” (Yes, “Crime Crime Grades” is the exact wording, which does not fill me with confidence about CrimeGrade.org’s attention to detail.) CrimeGrade.org claims a trademark on “Overall Crime Grade,” which is surely a lie—that’s like trademarking “Might Rain Tomorrow”—and informs me that “your home is 300% more likely to be robbed with no home security system.” Below this ominous stat is a button for the “best home security systems.” One suspects this is CrimeGrade.org’s real business—charging businesses to link to their services.

Being a retired intrepid journo, I drove around this nearby Crime Crime F neighborhood, in daylight hours but alone and unarmed—how’s that for courage?—to see what the local mean streets look like. The designated danger zone includes a high school and is dense with apartment buildings. Compared to tract house developments, apartment complexes do tend to have more crime, due to factors such as greater population density, renters having less investment in the neighborhood, more transience, and more targets for petty crime per block. But I worked for nearly 30 years in Baltimore, statistically one of the nation’s most dangerous cities, and I have been on some of Charm City’s most blighted streets. Baltimore blight is the real deal. Crime Crime F blight bore no resemblance. The apartment buildings looked maintained, the lawns mowed. There were no loiterers, no broken windows, no graffiti…you get the picture.

Here is a sample of Nextdoor’s daily email alerts that shot into my inbox in the last two weeks:

  • “Does anyone know what was going on on 83 South last night at around 11:30? There were, no exaggeration, 40-50 police vehicles. I’ve never seen so many in one area.”
  • “Any idea what is going on in ___? Police helicopters hovering around for a while this evening!”
  • “Does anyone know of a place to buy legal (non-lethal) self defense items or do we have to get them online? Been hearing lots of shouting at night.”
  • “Once again, my packages are stolen from my porch. I was told by a neighbor that a few kids stole it off my porch. If I caught them I will file charges. Or better yet start beating some ass. I’m just saying!”
  • “Does anyone know what happened in the field next to ___ today around 8:20am or before that? There was police cars, & forensics…”
  • “Does anyone know why road was blocked near Walmart on ___. Cops all around. Heard gunshot. About 2:00 PM?”

Sounded dire, so for a deeper understanding I went to my neighborhood’s Nextdoor site to better inform myself. But instead of reports of rampant criminality, I found almost every neighbor’s post to be like these:

  • “Can someone recommend a legitimate and honest company to clean a dryer vent?”
  • “Hi! Does anyone have someone local that they recommend for making a balloon arch for a party?”
  • “Looking for someone to watch my e-collar trained Chesapeake Retriever from 6/14-6/16.”
  • “Hello. Please recommend a local lawn care specialist. I’m currently struggling to get rid of weeds.”
  • “Does anyone know where I can donate a couple of dresses to girls in need for prom?”

Almost no mention of crime at all.

When I dig deeper into the seven fearful posts cited above, the ones about gunshots and 40-50 police cars, I notice that six of the seven are not from my neighborhood. Nextdoor, “where community and camaraderie come together,” keeps sending me alarms about possible crime occurring nowhere near to where I live. Elsewhere on its pages Nextdoor says, “Everyone is a neighbor.” No, they’re not. That person 10 miles away who had FOUR (4) DIRT BIKES pilfered last night? I’m sorry for you, but you are not my neighbor, and your loss does not mean my neighborhood is going to hell.

You don’t need a sharp mind to see what’s going on here. Nextdoor uses anxiety about crime to drive traffic to its website, where it sells advertising, charges for sponsored posts, and collects monthly fees for “neighborhood sponsorships.” (I suspect it also gathers user data that it can monetize.) In March 2019, HuffPost reported that Nextdoor had employed a digital media entrepreneur named Ed Sussman, whose current business is editing Wikipedia pages to slant them in favor of his clients. Nextdoor needed the help. Its careers page pictures smiling white, black, and brown people and states the company’s purpose: “To cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighborhood they can rely on.” But Nextdoor has been dogged for years by press reports of white users co-opting it for racial profiling in various cities. The deck of a 2016 story in The Atlantic about Nextdoor read, “A social-networking site is helping Seattle’s cops dive deeper into the communities they serve—but the platform can stoke neighborhood paranoia and social stigma.” In 2020, The Verge reported, “For years, Nextdoor has struggled to shed its reputation as a ‘snitch’ app, used by white and wealthy users to racially profile their neighbors and report them to the police.”

Most of what I find when I scroll down my Nextdoor page is benign. If some of my neighbors got their dryer vents cleaned, found someone to make them a balloon arch, and scored a cheap prom dress, good for them. But the anxiety economy, especially the white anxiety economy, is not benign. The worst actors in American politics use the same cynical manipulation of fear and suspicion to win elections and justify personal AR-15 arsenals and support repressive policing, and too many of the amoral craphounds who own US companies are more than happy to monetize one of the most destructive forces in contemporary American society.

In its 2023 Q4 earnings statement, Nextdoor Holdings Inc., which is based in San Francisco and trades on the New York Stock Exchange, states, “As a purpose-driven company, Nextdoor leverages innovative technology to cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighborhood they can rely on—both online and in the real world.” Child, please.

According to the same statement, all that cultivation of neighborly kindness produced a loss of $147.8 million in 2023. Nextdoor claims to have signed up one of every three US households, and still can’t seem to make money. Well, they could always ratchet up the fear. Works for cable news.

As always, thank you dear Jogglers for reading. This edition marks 80 letters so far, with more to come and a softbound anthology in the works. Bless your joggly hearts. And Happy May Day.