Social Network Connects Neighbors

It used to be people could interact with their communities without the need of touch screens. But as more people rely heavily on their smartphones and tablets, some feel online social networks are growing more familiar than their own neighborhoods. “Technology has kind of driven people indoors. Nextdoor wants to reverse that,” said Jen Burke, communications manager at Nextdoor, a social network based in San Francisco.

Nextdoor is a free online community for real-world neighborhoods, and its popularity is rising. In 2012, 14 neighborhoods in Monterey were registered with Nextdoor. Now, more than 80 are using it. To join, a person, called a lead, sets up a neighborhood on Nextdoor by creating an account and setting his or her neighborhood’s boundaries on a map. When new users from within that neighborhood join Nextdoor, the information they share on the website stays within the neighborhood, rather than spreading to a global network as it can on Facebook or Twitter, said Burke.

“I think that there’s a lot of overlap between social networks, so it’s about what value a site brings,” said Sean Brownlee, the lead for the Del Monte Beach neighborhood in Monterey. “The No. 1 thing that they offer is privacy.”

People trying to launch a neighborhood or join an existing one on Nextdoor must verify that they live in that neighborhood. They can do this instantly with a credit card Nextdoor says it doesn’t charge the card, but confirms a user’s location with the billing address or request to have Nextdoor mail them a postcard with a unique registration code. Neighborhood leads can also invite new members with emails or postcards.

“Privacy is critical. That is one of our priorities,” Burke said. “You can be sure you are talking to the people in your neighborhood.”

Neighbors use Nextdoor to share recommendations for businesses in the community; report crimes or safety concerns; sell things; an coordinate events, according to information provided by the company. Neighbors in Del Monte Beach have used the site to ask for help looking for lost dogs, said Brownlee, adding that all the lost dogs have been found. People have also used it to arrange for neighbors to look after their houses while they’re away. One Del Monte family needed someone to take their garbage to the curb while they were on vacation, Brownlee said. Because of this, neighbors who lived three doors apart met for the first time.

“You can live next door to somebody and not even know their name,” he said.

About one in four Americans couldn’t name any of their neighbors, next door or otherwise, according to a 2010 study performed by the Pew Research Center.

Many people feel they don’t need another online social network, said deputy Ryan Kennedy of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office. Kennedy said he felt the same way at first, but Nextdoor has been a valuable addition to his social networking portfolio.

“People say I don’t need another one, but the others have a focus on you. This one focuses on a community. It’s going to help you connect with people you may not now,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy and the sheriff’s office use Nextdoor to share information with neighborhoods in their jurisdiction. When the department sends posts to neighborhoods, it will only see the responses neighbors have to those posts, said Burke. In other words, deputies can’t see conversations between neighbors on Nextdoor.

“We’re getting more information because we’re reaching more people in the community,” said Kennedy. “It’s almost like having another set of eyes on the street.”

Some Monterey residents have been reluctant to join Nextdoor, but they are the same people who are not using other social networks, Brownlee said. He said some members left the network when a small group started flooding the neighborhood message board with complaints that only related to a particular apartment complex. “Otherwise, we’ve seen nothing but good things,” he said.

More than 28,000 neighborhoods across the country have registered with Nextdoor, which launched in October 2011, Burke said. It is available in all 50 states.

Author(s): MATT DAVENPORT, Monterey County Herald

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