RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Think before you post. That's not the message you typically get from Internet companies. The whole point of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is to share everything. But now, there is one social network - it's called Nextdoor - that has decided to block certain posts when they appear to be racial profiling. NPR's Aarti Shahani reports.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Talking about race and racial profiling does not come naturally to Nirav Tolia, the CEO of Nextdoor, but he's doing it anyway.
NIRAV TOLIA: This is a very, very, very difficult problem in society. Do I believe that a series of forms can stop people from being racist? Of course I don't. That would be a ridiculous statement.
SHAHANI: Tolia does believe he can make Nextdoor a more thoughtful place by changing how people post. Nextdoor is a popular social network for neighborhood. You use your real name and address to join an online group with your real neighbors. And the company is tackling a tough problem - how do you stop an activity when people can't even agree on how to define it? Jaywalking, speeding - those are easy. Racial profiling does not have a universally accepted definition. Tolia offers a working one.
TOLIA: Anything that allows a person to stereotype an entire race.
SHAHANI: Some Nextdoor users do that a lot, especially when posting about a possible crime. And they don't realize it.
TOLIA: In many cases, people say, well, if I look out my window and I see someone breaking into a car, and the only thing I see is that they're dark-skinned, why can't I post a dark-skinned man is breaking into a car? That's all I see.
SHAHANI: The activity sounds like a crime, but the description of the guy lacks any useful detail, like what he was wearing, his sneakers, his hairstyle or height.
TOLIA: Because that message goes out to the entire neighborhood, where presumably many of the neighbors reading the post are dark-skinned, that would be considered racial profiling.
SHAHANI: This kind of post kept happening on Nextdoor, so they decided to put a stop to it by changing the product. Now, when you type in about crime and safety, you can't just say, sketchy guy hanging around building or standing on corner. The algorithm prompts you to describe the criminal activity. If you mention race, you have to give other details. Otherwise, you cannot post.
TOLIA: And there was a lot of debate around that internally.
TOLIA: Because it's highly unusual for a social network to say, if you don't do this, you cannot post - highly unusual. I mean, think about Twitter or Facebook or Snapchat. I mean, there's no friction at all in the process of posting.
SHAHANI: In tech, friction is a dirty word. Engineers wrack their brains over how to shave seconds off the time it takes to broadcast a post across seven continents. Tolia admits there was a lot of internal conflict. Some employees said Nextdoor should just politely suggest, not require better descriptions. Even if users complain about bullying, hate speech, revenge porn, other social networks don't change their product.
TOLIA: They may write a blog post. They may make a donation to charity, something like that.
SHAHANI: There's an interesting backstory here. Ultimately, it was a grassroots campaign in Oakland that compelled the tech company. Listen to this threat from city councilwoman Desley Brooks at a hearing last December.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DESLEY BROOKS: We, as a city, ought to say that we will not allow our employees to continue to post on Nextdoor and validate this poor behavior.
SHAHANI: A group called Neighbors for Racial Justice met with Nextdoor and handed over a blueprint for how to change the platform. Then they got local lawmakers on board. Nextdoor recruits police and city agencies into the network. They're an added feature - a kind of community policing 2.0 that many users want. Councilwoman Annie Campbell Washington says some residents worried this was just the PC police. They wrote her.
ANNIE CAMPBELL WASHINGTON: Why would you engage in anything that limits people's expression, and especially people who are trying to keep their neighborhood safe?
SHAHANI: Then the regular police weighed in. Oakland Lieutenant Chris Bolton.
CHRIS BOLTON: We would much rather have a very detailed description about a factor that is very unique, such as, you know, the man who robbed me was wearing tennis shoes with red laces, than I would a very vague description of just, you know, perhaps a sex and race of a person.
SHAHANI: He says the changes make Nextdoor more - not less - helpful for real police work. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Oakland.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.