Combating Loneliness Through Apps: Q&A with Nextdoor’s Jennie Sager

Jennie Sager is a Country Manager at Nextdoor, the online neighborhood hub that cultivates a kinder world where everyone has a neighbor to rely on. Jennie was scheduled to speak at MGS Singapore, but MGA made the decision to put people before profits in the face of Coronavirus and COVID-19 and cancel that in-person event. Jennie still has plenty to share and she’ll be speaking at MGS GVC 1.0. Her message is more important now than ever before as people face the idea of social distancing as a solution to the epidemic. We talked to Jennie about the importance of community and how apps—and the digital world in general—still have a part to play in building real-world communities.


Q: You often speak about how technology is, in some ways, increasing loneliness. How do you see this playing out in reality?

A: Technology has revolutionized our world in many ways for the better. It’s an enormously powerful tool that allows us to stay in touch with friends and family across the globe; it provides us with a source of endless information at our fingertips, and it entertains us in new and exciting ways. But, technology has also contributed to a more isolated life for millions of people around the world. In the 2019 World Economic Forum panel on loneliness, experts discussed how technology is fueling loneliness and the empathy deficit in our lives, despite the promise of bringing people closer. In the United States, a Cigna study noted that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.

Research in Australia found that 28% of people say they feel lonely at least three days every week. This scientific research shows that social isolation and loneliness are at an all-time high globally. Each generation connects in the real world less than the one before it. The structures for looking out for each other as a family or a community have totally fallen apart. We barely even talk to each other anymore in real life. We communicate through messaging online or on our phones and while we are closer together online, we are further apart offline. Thanks to technology, we are “connected,” but the problem is that those “connections” are not always meaningful, real-world connections. For example, on social media, you may have thousands of “friends,” but how many of them are people you could rely on in a time of need?


Q: Does tech—specifically mobile—have the ability to also combat isolation?

A: Tech, and part of that being mobile, can absolutely help combat social isolation. We need to design products and create metrics with a sense of social responsibility. For example, metrics like “time in-app” encourage companies to build products that create habitual tendencies without looking at healthy metrics such as the civility and safety of the platform.


Q: How should companies think about their role in the well-being of their users?

A: The well-being of users should be a top priority for companies and should infiltrate every single decision that is made. This requires us to look at every facet of the tech industry and incorporate safety and health into the design, core values, and mission. For example, we should be teaching everyone from university students to startup founders and venture capitalists about how to build a safer and more trustworthy online world. It may sound daunting, but it really isn’t because it’s just about changing your mindset. If you build a product that creates a safe and positive experience for your users, engagement, and growth will continue to increase which will drive more revenue. Prioritize the well-being of your customers and you’ll always come out ahead.


Q: How do you—and Nextdoor—think about and employ these ideas in your work on a day to day basis?

A: At Nextdoor, we are committed to earning trust every day. Since day one, Nextdoor has required people to use their real name and verified address, so members can trust that their Nextdoor neighborhood is made up of real people at real addresses. Our onboarding process is friction-full, which means we sacrifice our own growth every single day, but this creates the trust and accountability that cultivates kindness online and into the real world.

This is so important to us as our purpose is to cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighborhood to rely on. Nextdoor connects neighbors to trusted local people and businesses and creates a warm welcome in their local communities, online and offline. We bring local utility into people’s daily lives and deliver relevant content that has instant distribution to everyone in the neighborhood. We amplify trust and kindness by encouraging helpfulness and by verifying neighbors. We have a team dedicated to “Neighborhood Vitality,” building products that encourage civility and kindness on our platform. We’re already working to build kindness into our product with features like the Kindness Reminder, a feature meant to encourage kind replies on the Nextdoor platform. If a member replies to a neighbor’s post with a potentially offensive or hurtful comment, Kindness Reminder will be prompted before the comment goes live. The member is then given the chance to reference our Community Guidelines, reconsider and edit their reply, or ultimately refrain from posting.


Q: What can you tell us about Nextdoor users and how they use the app to connect with each other and create real-world communities?

A: Nextdoor empowers neighbors to reach out to people in their neighborhood that they don’t know. We connect you based on proximity, not preference, so you’re connected with people that live in your neighborhood and your nearby neighborhoods. Our goal is that you start your conversation online via Nextdoor, but that it turns into a true, meaningful connection offline, and we see this every day all over the world.

Nextdoor members love to share trusted recommendations from the neighborhood, support local businesses, sell and swap goods, share crime and safety information, and keep each other up to date on essential community information and events. However, I get really excited about how many people start their own events and meetups to directly combat social isolation and loneliness. We see people starting everything from supper clubs and breakfast groups to walking groups and chess clubs. Another big use case is rallying together around a common goal and fighting for a cause as a community. This tends to be very powerful. We’ve seen neighborhoods get speed limits lowered, postal office hours extended, bus services reinstated. It’s amazing what a community can achieve when people work together.


Q: In the face of Coronavirus and COVID-19, we see “social distancing” being recommended, potentially making apps like Nextdoor even more important to building real-world connections. Have you seen that happening?

A: In March, our strong growth and engagement have only increased, with our global daily active users increasing more than 80% month over month.We’ve seen a 4x increase in signups in the last week in Australia, and a 10x increase in posts with the word “kindness.” In times of crisis, people often turn to those they trust most, which is the people closest to them… their local community. Nextdoor gives them a safe and easy way to connect and to offer help to one another. This is important in good times, but it’s essential in times of need. The power of proximity is everything right now, and we are continuously updating our product during these challenging times. For example, we launched a way for users to mark themselves as someone who can help, we made creating help groups easier, we created a flyer that makes it easy to reach neighbors who aren’t on Nextdoor, and much much more. We will continue to evolve to empower our members to spread kindness through their communities every single day.