Comedy writer Spike Feresten, who penned the famous “Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld, appreciates the drama of the quotidian. While he has racked up sizable social media followings on Twitter and Instagram, it’s the neighborhood platform Nextdoor that has attracted his attention lately. “I learned that more than a few neighbors owned tortoises and somehow these slow-moving animals kept escaping,” says Feresten.
For Hollywood insiders, Nextdoor is the oft-overlooked stepchild to apps like TikTok and Instagram. Chasing clout on those global platforms might seem like a more worthwhile pursuit than joining a local social network that intentionally restricts who can see a post by physical geography. But it turns out celebrities are much like everyone else, following and commenting on the exploits of escaped pets, finding a reliable handyman and learning that their favorite local deli is closing on the app, which has seen increased usage during the pandemic. (Nextdoor says nearly one in three U.S. households are on the platform, up from one in five in early 2020.)
Comedy writer Bruce Vilanch joined Nextdoor to find local tradespeople but quickly realized he could sharpen his joke-writing chops on there during COVID. “I needed an outlet when there were no live performances,” he explains.
For British actor-singer Richard Shelton, (House of Lies, Jane the Virgin), Nextdoor became a way to connect with his Hollywood neighbors when he decided to host weekly lockdown concerts from his balcony. Inspired by the balcony concerts in Italy, Shelton began posting invitations to socially distanced concerts in his driveway while he belted Frank Sinatra songbook classics from above. “I got to meet my neighbors,” says Shelton, who finally joined them for drinks and dinners once lockdown was lifted. “It turned into a wonderful thing.”
Lance Ito (the L.A. judge who presided over the 1995 O.J. Simpson criminal trial) is the neighbor keeping a keen eye out for local coyotes. “Having fought off a seemingly fearless coyote who was chasing my seven-pound chihuahua, Carmen Miranda, I believe this is a serious matter for my particular neighborhood,” he says via email.
Anne Heche used Nextdoor when she needed a tutor for her son while she was on Dancing With the Stars. “It really is a place where people can look out for each other,” Heche says.
Not every industry insider has such a magnanimous view of the app. Feresten has been suspended multiple times for heatedly arguing politics with his Westside neighbors. As public discourse has become more and more polarized, San Francisco-based Nextdoor (which has plans to go public) hasn’t escaped the questions of content moderation plaguing other social networks.
Both the pandemic and racial-justice protests turned Nextdoor into a microcosm of national politics. The platform has come under fire for seemingly capricious moderation guidelines when posts about Black Lives Matter were removed while racist comments were allowed to remain. A “forward to police” feature on the site that let users send posts directly to the cops was axed last summer after criticism that the feature could contribute to racial profiling.
Feresten, who joined Nextdoor about five years ago, finds himself at the mercy of his neighborhood moderators. While COVID-19 misinformation that gets reported is routed to Nextdoor’s hired support staff, the vast majority of content moderation is done via volunteer neighborhood “leads.” Many of the moderators were invited by other leads, creating the potential for a homogenous group of neighbors deciding what is and isn’t appropriate. Users can also face permanent bans.
Racism, vaccine misinformation and posts about the unhoused are likely to elicit a passionate response from Feresten. “It’s the most wonderful, horrible app in existence right now,” he says. It’s also the inspiration for an unscripted show Feresten is developing for ABC. While his personal use of the app might be considered contentious, the aim of his show is to resolve everyday disputes such as, “When is it OK to put dog waste in someone else’s bin?” Explains Feresten, “Hopefully it’s entertaining but also teaches people how to love their neighbors and resolve these conflicts.”
As of press time, Feresten once again has been suspended from Nextdoor for 30 days.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.