DEAR OMAR

Ring’s Neighborhood App Is Worse Than Useless

Ring doorbells see all, but know nothing

Do you remember, way back about six or seven years ago, when Ring just made video doorbells?

This was after the small startup company competed on Shark Tank but before it was swallowed up Amazon, which made the now-ubiquitous doorbells the center of a universe; last time I checked, that universe now includes stand-alone security cameras, driveway lighting, car alarms, home and business security systems, smoke alarms, and mailbox sensors.

I was an early fan of Ring: It felt like a piece of hardware whose time had come. Riding on a wave of increasingly useful smart-home gadgets, the Ring doorbell was a way to take an important, but outmoded technology (the humble doorbell) and add a lot of useful features, like the ability to monitor package deliveries to your door, view motion-detector alerts, and link to other devices like your smartphone to give you a live video feed of your front door.

As clever and easy to install as Ring’s line of hardware products are (I also own the Pathlights, which work great), I’ve found their software to be much more problematic. Ring’s app software, for instance, has suffered from severe bloat as increasingly disparate product lines have been brought to the ecosystem. There are so many menus and options in the main Ring app now that navigating to find the option you need has become a chore, which is especially frustrating since these tech products were supposed to have been designed for the masses. Reporter Adrienne Samuels Gibbs recently wrote a piece for Debugger about how she’d hired a professional electrician to hardwire and install her Ring only to find out that the software had only partially been installed and required another professional to come out and finish the installation.

If you’re a believer that tech companies should stay out of the business of helping government agencies enforce laws or pursue suspects, you might have been shocked when, a year and a half ago, word got out that Amazon and Ring were working with about 400 law-enforcement agencies to share doorbell video to fight crime. While the story caused concern and some protest, the backlash did nothing to slow sales of Ring devices or for Amazon to back off or to shy away from plans to incorporate facial-recognition tech into its products.

But where I think Ring has really lost its way has been in its dogged pursuit of incorporating a social network for homeowners to ostensibly protect each other as a kind of iPhone Neighborhood Watch Brigade. What feels at times like a Nextdoor knockoff, (where your nosiest neighbors spend their time online) has become a bigger and bigger part of Amazon-by-way-of-Ring’s overall mission with the products. Of course, an Amazon-powered nationwide neighborhood watch using products Amazon builds and sells to report on Amazon items stolen by porch thieves is pretty genius in an elegantly closed-loop sort of way. I also pay about $3 a month to be able to access archived videos that my doorbell records. But Ring’s user-generated content — the types of alerts that Ring users like me get regularly as part of our subscriptions — are beyond useless.

The neighborhood functions in Ring have become so popular, apparently, that the company spun these features out into its own app for iOS and Android called Neighbors by Ring. The app includes community resources and some curated news, such as updates about Covid-19 vaccines. But for the most part, it’s got a lot of the same kind of unhelpful posts and blurry video shots that made this social network such an annoyance in the original Ring app.

When you put regular people in charge of deciding what is or isn’t a potential crime and who is or isn’t suspicious, the result is not great, to say the least. It turns out that regular people not trained in any kind of surveillance or criminal-justice matters and are, as you’d expect, more likely to suspect people of color or teenagers of causing trouble near their homes, even without any proof.

“This guy is up to something,” one “Unexpected activity” alert shows me. Video from the “incident” shows a man walking up a driveway near a car and then walking away when some lights come on. “Sus,” (as my Among Us playing kids might say), but not illegal or worth alerting the world about.

Another video posted shows “Young man who is drunk walked up on my porch taking pictures. Opens door and he said he was drunk.” The video does back up the title, but again, this isn’t anyone posing a danger to the community. In a similar vein, “Young guy looking through car,” shows a man walking by a car parked alongside a curb and peeking inside, then continuing walking. Not exactly criminal behavior, but as one commenter explains, “Kids commit a lot of crimes.”

Some alerts in my app look that like they might be informative, such as “There are reports of a fire…” near my home. What’s not so useful: I still see it in the app on March 29 and the fire supposedly took place on February 27. The drunken photos video I mentioned was also still a headline more than a month after it occurred.

The Neighbors app does have potential when emergencies happen. When my community suffered a horrific hard freeze that killed as many as 111 in Texas, the updates proved much more useful. Ring users posted about rolling power outages, what to do about burst water pipes, and there was even one plea for bread, eggs, and milk. The post was met with 44 responses, many of them with information on how to get these items or offers to share.

Even with a lot of these Ring doorbells presumably out of commission due to the power outages, community members still found utility in the app to connect with those around them and to offer help when it was needed.

But that’s not really how Neighbors works most of the time. Instead, it’s full of people with no expertise chiming in on crimes that probably aren’t even crimes and filling the online version of our community with a lot of paranoia and stupidity. Ring doesn’t seem to be interested in moderating or curating community alerts; it may be too big a task for even a company owned by Amazon. But without more oversight, this social network is never going to be more than a bunch of busybodies spreading bad, unverified information to those around them.

Tech culture writer and podcaster, now freelancing in Texas. Bylines: Washington Post, WSJ, CNN, NPR, Texas Monthly. Here for all your wordy needs.

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