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My digital neighborhood

Technology | A slow-growing social network wants you to get online and meet your neighbors

Issue: "China's abortion regime," July 26, 2014

A quirk of 21st-century civilization is how perfectly normal it is to chat online with a friend from across the state, but how unusual it is to talk face-to-face with a neighbor across the street. In my experience, most neighborhood conversations are sparked by lost dogs, power outages, and extreme winter weather. A poll from Pew Research found that a quarter of Americans don’t know any of their neighbors by name.

A free social network called Nextdoor wants to change that. Nextdoor.com is like Facebook for your neighborhood: Only people who live nearby can view the network or post comments on it. Based in San Francisco and launched nationwide in 2011, Nextdoor has grown to include 35,000 neighborhoods in over 100 cities.

In January an email arrived in my inbox asking me to join a new Nextdoor website for my neighborhood in northwest Indiana. I did, and became one of the first 12 “neighbors” on the network. Over the next six months I occasionally checked in to the site, in hopes of discovering whether it could provide a meaningful connection to my neighbors.

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Nextdoor requires members to use real names. Members have the option to post a profile picture and contact info, explain what they do for a living, and say whether they have children or pets. A few members are assigned as administrators and can delete inappropriate posts.

When members post to the site, they can choose whether to make the information visible only to their immediate neighborhood or to nearby neighborhoods as well, giving some control over the degree of privacy. They can also exchange private messages.

In my town, neighbors posted break-in alerts, photos of missing cats and dogs, and holiday greetings. Some asked about subdivision garage sales, offered items for sale, or asked (and occasionally complained) about city services. I chimed in with a warning about telephone scammers after a woman with an Asian accent called one day and tried to hijack my computer over the phone. A few neighbors thanked me and posted additional scammer tips of their own.

The team that runs Nextdoor has been pitching the service to law enforcement officials as a way of keeping in touch with residents. In my neighborhood, the local police department was the most active user. It posted holiday burglary prevention tips and asked residents to report uncut grass and unlicensed vehicles.

One major problem, though, was that from January to June, my network grew glacially, from 12 members to just 18—almost all total strangers to me. That out of 1,495 households allegedly within my “neighborhood” boundaries.

Postings were infrequent, too (in June, no one had written a new post since March). My neighbors might have been like me: Whereas I often checked Facebook, I only rarely checked in with Nextdoor. Who has time for both? After all, the local police department is on Facebook, too.

Still, only 2 percent of Facebook “friends” consist of physical neighbors, according to another Pew report. It leads me to believe Nextdoor has potential to fill a local niche.

As to meaningful connections, I have already learned the names of a few nearby neighbors for the first time—an initial step to better acquaintance. However, none of us has been willing to divulge our phone numbers yet, suggesting we still have some bridge building ahead.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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