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.