Way before anyone talked about social networks, everyone had a social network that was convenient, useful and fun. It consisted of the other folks in everybody’s real-world neighborhoods — but in recent decades, this ready-made community has faded away for many of us. (If you know everyone within a few houses of your home by name, you’re doing better than I am.)
Since 2011, a San Francisco startup called Nextdoor has been trying to bring real-world neighborhoods into the digital age. It’s not the only company trying to do that, and it’s no simple task: EveryBlock, a pioneer in the category, shut down last week. But Nextdoor is among the most promising contenders, and it’s rolling out a new version this week — Nextdoor 2.0 — with a streamlined interface and a variety of tweaks.
In some ways, Nextdoor’s service feels a little bit like Facebook (hey, it’s a social network) and a little bit like Craigslist (free classified ads are a key attraction). Yet it’s also strikingly different from both of them.
Unlike Facebook, it emphasizes privacy above all else: Only members can see anything on the service, and all they can see is content posted by people who live nearby. And unlike the famously anonymous Craigslist, you know exactly who you’re dealing with: Everybody is required to use their real names and when you join, and Nextdoor verifies that they’re who they say they are by making an automated phone call to a landline, mailing a postcard or doing a credit-card verification.
The company found that much of the activity in the 8,000 U.S. neighborhoods currently on the service related to crime and safety, so version 2.0 dedicates a section to those topics and permits members to send Urgent Alerts, which reach their neighbors on their phones as text messages. In some areas, police and fire departments also use Nextdoor to communicate with local citizens.
The service is still designed for communications among neighbors, but version 2.0 expands the definition of “neighbor” a tad by introducing the concept of Nearby Neighborhoods. They let you interact with members in areas which surround your own, and are particularly useful if your own neighborhood is sparsely populated with Nextdoor users. Besides classifieds and crime and safety, other sections include documents, free items, lost and found, general and an area for Yelp-like recommendations of local businesses.
Nextdoor is nicely designed and full of worthwhile features. When founder Nirav Tolia previewed the new version for me last week, I got excited about using it myself. Unfortunately, though, it hasn’t taken off in my neighborhood in Daly City, a suburb of San Francisco.
When I signed up for Nextdoor, it placed me in an area it calls Westlake Park. (Which, incidentally, is a term I’d never heard applied to my ‘hood — I live in the Olympic subdivision of something known as the Westlake District.) The good news is that Daly City maintains an official presence on Nextdoor, using it to share information such as local celebrations and city hall’s holiday schedule. It’s been posting regularly since December of 2011.
But Daly City itself is the most active Nextdoor user I can see in Daly City. There are only 15 members in Westlake Park (out of 1396 households), and they’re an awfully quiet bunch. Between them, they’ve posted a grand total of one item (a classified for a used Mac) in 2013. Even with eight Nearby Neighborhoods thrown in, there are only 138 members in my vicinity. And so far, only a few of these people have contributed content of any sort. It feels like a ghost town, not a community.
You, of course, may live in a neighborhood with more Nextdoor activity: Tolia showed me several, located in different states, which looked bustling. Or you could live somewhere even sleepier than mine, or one which isn’t yet up and running on Nextdoor at all. (Neighborhoods are created by members.) If you find the idea the least bit intriguing, it’s worth signing up and checking out.
Me, I’m going to keep an eye on Westlake Park — if more than the smattering of my neighbors who are currently on Nextdoor show up and start doing stuff, I could get excited about it all over again.