Angie Jackson considers herself “neighborly.” She uses that word to describe an old-fashioned approach to community, where everyone knows everyone and everyone pitches in. It’s an attitude one might associate with small towns, but Jackson lives in Sandy, Utah, estimated population 96,380. The Salt Lake City suburb straddles the line between rural simplicity and metropolitan amenities, branding itself as a place “where mountain meets urban.” That juxtaposition is especially evident in the realm of neighborhood safety, and the profusion of smartphone apps that promise to foster it.
Jackson, who at 59 sports a blond, choppy bob cut and dark, thick-framed spectacles, installed one such app about a year ago. It’s called Nextdoor, a hyper-local social network that markets a digitized version of that warm, Mayberry-esque aesthetic Jackson and so many others crave. “When neighbors start talking, good things happen,” its slogan says. And in fact, Jackson joined at the behest of her real-life neighbor.
Most interactions on Nextdoor are fairly innocent: people giving away vegetables from their garden, advertisements for a local adult softball league, lost pet bulletins. But Jackson joined for another reason: “I like to know what’s going on in the neighborhood crime-wise,” she says. And she’s not alone.
Many Americans are gripped with a peculiar fear, a growing sense of danger in the streets that bears little resemblance to statistical reality. According to Pew Research Center, 47% of Americans surveyed in 2000 believed that crime in the United States was worse than the year before. By 2019, that number had swelled to 78%.
While violent crime has risen recently in major metropolitan areas like New York City, overall data from the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics show crime has declined sharply since the early 1990s. Still, “Americans tend to believe crime is up,” Pew concludes, “even when the data shows it is down.”
Perhaps another indicator of this concern is the popularity of apps that promise to help users feel safer, often through some sort of surveillance.
As of 2020, Nextdoor reportedly had 10 million registered users; the company claims that about 1-in-3 U.S. households use it. Amazon’s Neighbors brands itself “the new neighborhood watch”; among other functions, it connects to Ring doorbell cameras, allowing users to share videos of package thieves and break-ins with their own social networks and police. The Washington Post reported earlier this year that over 3 million Ring cameras are operating in the U.S. Vivint’s Streety is similar; it creates a network of local security cameras. Citizen is more focused on news, offering users real-time crime alerts; it had over 5 million users in June 2020, according to Forbes.
The gap between her perception of crime and the official data is one reason Jackson joined Nextdoor. The rate of violent crime in Sandy has remained relatively steady since 2003, but she feels like it’s getting worse. And she worries that the traditional community institutions aren’t taking it seriously.
Asked if she feels unsafe, Jackson pauses. “Honestly, I don’t know that I do yet,” she says. But the more she talks, the closer she comes to answering in the affirmative. “I feel unsafe,” she finally admits, “but not so unsafe that I would move. At least not yet.” The question is, what can she do about it?
Sarah Lageson, a sociologist at Rutgers University, found in her research on digital neighborhood watch groups that the people behind them similarly felt law enforcement and media organizations were failing to respond adequately to local crime. Such groups are sometimes encouraged by police, but because they operate outside of legal authority, they can find themselves crossing the line from keeping their families safe into something else entirely.
“Whenever there’s vigilantism on the rise, I am confident that you can find a ton of media reporting about some type of criminality that local people feel is out of control, and that the state agencies, particularly the police, are unable to help them with,” says Dara Byrne, associate provost at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “An important part of the story of vigilantism is that vigilantes do believe that they are bringing a much-needed solution to a gap in their community.”
Traditional neighborhood watch groups started as a response to rising crime in the late 1960s and matured as outgrowths of community policing initiatives in the ’70s and ’80s. Their stated intention, too, was to bring neighbors together for the good of everyone. But defining who is a neighbor and who isn’t can be more complicated than it seems. It’s not just who lives in a particular area, but how lines between areas are drawn and who gets the benefit of the doubt as an assumed resident.
“There are arguments from an evolutionary perspective that people naturally create groups,” Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist, says. “The creation of a group implies some are in and some are out. Like many instinctive behaviors, however, that tendency was not designed for modern-day circumstances.”
In theory, neighborhood watch programs are inclusive of anybody who’s willing to help out. “But that just doesn’t happen on the internet, because we just don’t let ourselves be in spaces where we feel that people disagree with us,” Lageson says. “We don’t behave on the internet the way we would ever behave in real life.”
Even deciding who looks suspicious can be influenced by prejudices and subconscious biases.
In a 2018 Medium post, Nisa Ahmad writes about moving to a gentrifying neighborhood and joining the Nextdoor app. Not long after, someone reported an African American neighbor as “suspicious” during his morning run. “He came on the app and asked people to be more mindful of the diversity of the neighborhood because he should not be criminalized for jogging,” she writes. That was far from the only example of such occurrences on Nextdoor, and the company now has a section on its help center dedicated to preventing racial profiling.
In other cases, the knowledge that somebody is watching may deter a would-be perpetrator, or at least encourage them to take their activities elsewhere. (This is the premise for the neighborhood watch street signs that still dot many residential areas.) Apps can be used to impose social consequences — like public shaming — on bad actors. Camera footage can be used as evidence, at least theoretically.
But maybe none of that matters. Whether or not browsing grainy surveillance footage on Nextdoor makes us safer, it can make us feel like we are. Knowing that someone tried to break into a car up the street arms us with information that can make us feel like we’re making the best decisions to protect ourselves and our property. Indeed, it’s a common impulse to seek some semblance of control amid an existence where crime and chaos often come down to luck and randomness. And that’s enough to keep users on the app.
“The main thing these apps are for is making profit for the companies who make the apps,” says Larisa Kingston Mann, an assistant professor of media studies and production at Temple University. And they do that, for the most part, by collecting data. “The problem is that these apps profit from encouraging a sense of fear in a community.”
In Jackson’s neighborhood in historic Sandy, where the buildings are plain and sturdy, where the population is relatively homogenous and where the crime rate is relatively low, the question is whether it’s good to keep watch.
“We survived a long time in society without knowing everything, without having perfect information,” Lageson says. “And now we’ve convinced ourselves in the digital age that we must know everything, we can never forget anything and everything must be archived. And we really don’t ask why.”