According to some recent survey results, Americans have become rather unneighborly. A mere 30 percent of us socialize with our neighbors more than once a month (down from 44 percent in the mid-1970s). And a shocking 28 percent of us know none of our neighbors by name. We may keep in touch with faraway friends on Facebook, but when it comes to hanging out in our own communities we are bowling alone.
Tech entrepreneur Nirav Tolia noticed that we increasingly seem to prefer rubbing elbows online—instead of in real places where real elbows might really rub—and saw a business opportunity. In late 2010, he created a service called Nextdoor. It's a social network that attempts to webify the original social network: the neighborhood. There are now Nextdoor sites in more than 6,500 communities in 49 states (not clear what's up with those anti-communitarian South Dakotans). All of them were launched by regular folks who sought a way to connect with their neighbors, but didn't want to ring doorbells or make small talk in the elevator.
To start a Nextdoor site for your own 'hood, you first define the physical boundaries of neighbordom. Who do you consider your fellow villagers? They could be spread out over a vast open realm if you live in a rural area where the houses are far apart; or might mingle around a few leafy blocks if you inhabit an inner-ring suburb; or could be smooshed together within a single high-rise building if you're a city dweller. Nextdoor prefers that each of its neighborhoods contain at least 75 households. So far the median number hovers somewhere around 200 to 300.
Once you've targeted your territory, you recruit your neighbors to sign up. Nextdoor provides postcards to put in mailboxes and flyers to post on telephone poles or in apartment building lobbies. No one is required to join, of course. If neighbors do hop on board, they must register using their real names and physical addresses (which Nextdoor then verifies before admitting them). Any posts on the site will be made under those real names—not made-up screen names—with real addresses visible for all other neighbors to see.
What happens on a Nextdoor neighborhood site once it's up and running? I spoke with Nextdoor users in San Francisco; Lafayette, Col.; and Hamilton, N.Y., and poked around on a couple of sites. Turns out there are lots of requests for recommendations: Anybody know a good nanny/auto mechanic/plumber? Also some spirited discussions regarding the relative merits of local restaurants and grocery stores. Much selling of or giving away of old patio furniture, outgrown baby strollers, and unwanted sporting equipment. Announcements about upcoming block parties and holiday gatherings. The occasional safety alert, when someone's car gets broken into while it’s sitting in a driveway.
You might wonder whether you could achieve similar ends simply by creating a Facebook group and asking neighbors to join. But Tolia points out that many have made the same argument about LinkedIn—that it’s useless because you could do the same stuff on Facebook—and yet lots of people find that site more useful than Facebook for professional networking. Nextdoor has dedicated tabs built in for things like events, recommendations, and safety. It eventually plans to make money by selling targeted ads of some sort to local dentists and window washers and such.
Perhaps more important, Nextdoor is private: Only verified neighbors can see each other's posts, and Nextdoor neighborhoods' pages are not indexed on any search engines. Some other community sites allow anonymity, which has encouraged incidents of nasty small-town gossip. (See this New York Times story about a site called Topix, on which rural users anonymously slag each other—e.g. "Has anyone noticed she is shaped like a penguin.") Tolia says that using real names and addresses has kept Nextdoor free of vicious name-calling and rumor-spreading. The Nextdoor users I spoke to agreed that this is the case.
To me, the more relevant question is whether we need, or want, to have any connection at all with the random grab-bag of strangers who happen to live nearby. We can sell stuff on Craigslist, give it away on Freecycle, find recommendations on Yelp. Is there something special about doing this stuff within a tightly knit, exclusive circle of neighbors—establishing a bond based on proximity?
I live in a 75-unit apartment building. I know only two of my neighbors by name. The woman across the hall (who once invited me over for a delicious Rosh Hashanah dinner) seems like a lovely person, and she returned my folding chairs promptly after she borrowed them. But then there's this other dude.
This guy—let's call him Larry—managed to invite himself into my apartment shortly after I moved in, when I was surrounded by open boxes and crumpled packing tape. Within minutes, he'd begun bragging to me about how he cheats on his wife. Since then, he has knocked on my door and 1) asked if I wanted to buy some cocaine, 2) insisted that he wanted to hire a prostitute for me—his treat, and 3) suggested we film some porn in my apartment, with him behind the camera and me as the star. I declined these offers.
Yes, I should have drawn firmer boundaries with Larry. Maybe right after that first visit. But I'm a nice guy, I didn't want to offend him, and it seemed much easier to nod and smile until he went away. Besides, and this is the key: He knew where I lived, and I had no choice but to see him all the time. Telling him off might result in a lot of very awkward moments in the elevator or the mailroom. Didn't seem worth it. I just waited for him to move out. Which he finally did, to my tremendous relief.
It's people like Larry that make us crave anonymity within our neighborhoods. Once even a shred of a relationship has been established, a neighbor might pound on your door at any moment, sidle up to you while you're jogging, or maneuver next to you in line at the corner store. We can't block them, as we can with annoying people on Facebook. The real life equivalent of blocking is a restraining order. That seems a bit messy and is likely overkill in a situation like this.
But while we may not want to be friends with our neighbors, there are still reasons to be neighborly. Moments of sudden need, a la the aforementioned folding chair borrowing. (Nextdoor wants to establish "lending libraries" so neighbors can arrange to share leafblowers and extension ladders and such.) Safety concerns. (There's some evidence that Neighborhood Watch is an effective program, and Tolia gets excited when he discusses the potential for Nextdoor to reduce crime rates.) Raising awareness around community issues. (There have been attempts to integrate local governments into Nextdoor sites—with posting but not viewing privileges, so they can broadcast information and alerts without spying on their citizens.)
All in all, it seems like Nextdoor may offer most of the benefits of neighborliness with few of the icky downsides. You can establish online ties with your neighbors, thereby eliminating the need to ever interact with them in person. Or—in a best-case scenario—the online connection might manage to surface some cool nearby folks you actually do want to have a beer with. I'm thinking I might go ahead and start a Nextdoor site for my building. Once I'm completely certain that Larry's gone.