A network of neighbors

A new acquaintance here in Santa Rosa recommended Nextdoor, a service that describes itself as “the private social network for your neighborhood.” Yet another social network? I know. Back in 2007 Gary McGraw nailed the problem of social network fatigue. “People keep asking me to join the LinkedIn network,” he said, “but I’m already part of a network, it’s called the Internet.”

Nevertheless, I joined. We’re new in town, and I don’t want to let my antipathy to walled gardens get in the way of making useful connections. If you haven’t seen Nextdoor it’s because you haven’t joined it. Nextdoor resembles Facebook in many ways. But it’s only visible after you sign up, and you can only do that by proving residence in a neighborhood.

The signup protocol is intriguing:

The postcard method seems safest but I didn’t want to wait. The credit card method is immediate but I dislike using my card that way. So I tried the phone method. You’re asked to provide a phone number that’s billed to your residence, then the phone receives a code you use to complete the signup.

How did the site get my service provider, AT&T, to confirm that my phone’s billing address matches the one I was claiming on Nextdoor? Beats me. On reflection that feels as creepy as identifying to a social network with a credit card, maybe creepier. It’s shame that services like Nextdoor can’t yet verify such claims with identity providers that we choose for the purpose — banks for example, or state governments. But I digress.

Once you sign in, Nextdoor begs you in the usual ways to help grow the network. It prompts you to upload contacts who will be targets for email invitations, and offers a $25 Amazon Gift Card if you’ll post an invitation link on Facebook or Twitter. But there are some uniquely local alternatives too. Nextdoor will send postcards to nearby households, and help you make flyers you can post around the neighborhood.

Nextdoor’s map of my neighborhood reports that 51 of 766 households are claimed by registered users. A progress bar shows that’s 7% of the total neighborhood saturation to which it aspires. The map is a patchwork quilt of claimed addresses, shown in green, and ones yet to be assimilated, shown in pink.

The neighborhood directory lists people who live at the claimed addresses, it links to their profiles, and it offers to send direct messages to them. Local chatter appears on the neighborhood wall and is what you’d expect: a filing cabinet is available for $85, a neighborhood watch meeting will be held next month.

This social network is private in an interesting way. The zone of privacy is defined by the neighborhood boundary. You can most easily find and interact with others within that zone. But you’re also made aware of activities in the wider zone of nearby neighborhoods. Maps of those neighborhoods aren’t as detailed. But you can see posts from people in nearby neighborhoods, communicate with them, and discover them by searching for things they’ve said.

Our neighborhood is near Santa Rosa’s downtown. Nextdoor considers fifteen others, comprising much of the downtown core, to be nearby neighborhoods. You can choose to communicate with nearby neighbors or not. If you do, you reveal less about yourself than to immediate neighbors. It’s a clever design that encourages people to explore the boundaries between what’s public and what’s private, to realize how the online world renders such distinctions fluid and relative, and to learn to behave accordingly.

None of this will appeal to everyone, much less to millenials like Carmen DeAmicis who covers social media for Gigaom. But in a recent Gigaom post she explains why she suddenly found Nextdoor compelling:

Twenty-somethings in urban areas by-and-large don’t have kids, their lives don’t revolve around their home and they know their neighbors hardly, if at all. So even though I covered Nextdoor, I never felt compelled to actually become a user.

That changes today. Nextdoor has introduced a new element to its application that makes it a must-use network, even for the disinterested younger generations. It has started partnering with police and fire departments across the country — in 250 cities initially, with more to come — to use Nextdoor to communicate about emergencies and safety issues with local residents.

Given that Nextdoor sings a familiar tune — “We will NOT require members to pay to use Nextdoor and we will not sell users’ private information to other companies” — that’s a plausible business model. But to partner cities it’s yet another channel of communication to keep track of. And to citizens it’s yet another fragment of online identity.

Cities need to engage with people as individuals, members of interest groups, and residents of neighborhoods, in multi-faceted ways that reflect personal preferences, local customs, and generational trends. Nextdoor is interesting and useful, but I would rather see neighborhood social networks arise as organically online as they do on the ground. There isn’t an app for that, but there is a network, or rather there will be. In that network you’ll choose various parties to certify claims about aspects of your identity to various other parties. Those claims will define your affiliations to various geographic and interest groups. Your communication within those groups will flow through channels that you specify. What is that network? We’ll call it the Internet, and we’ll all be neighbors there.

3 Comments

  1. Jon, in cohousing communities (www.cohousing.org), which are intentional communities where physical neighbors want to know each other, the electronic social networking technology of choice is the email list — the neighborhood is much more constrained than Nextdoor allows, though many cohousing communities use Nextdoor to communicate with their adjacent neighborhoods. My point being that nothing beats email and face-to-face authentication for building social networks :-)

    1. It’s the universal solvent. People endlessly speculate about the death of email. But every new social network uses it as the communication channel of first and last resort.

  2. Jon,

    Our neighborhood in Lafayette is significantly more penetrated than yours. We joined prior to the stricter requirements. (I forget what I had to prove – but it wasn’t very much if anything and may even have just been via referral from an existing member). It is a pretty good for robust and healthy local small ads and neighborhood news. The crime stuff is (to me) more alarmist than anything but we do live in a very safe area. Good for the kind of jobs that teens do – babysitting and pet watching and so on.

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