Finding a babysitter for Saturday night can be tough in neighborhoods where people rarely know one another's names. But that's changing, thanks to Nextdoor, a local social network designed to connect neighbors.
Over the past year or so, more than 12,600 neighborhoods in 50 states have joined Nextdoor, and about 1 million messages are posted every day. San Francisco, Seattle and Denver neighborhoods have each surpassed 90 percent participation, but Nextdoor isn't just for urban areas. It's for everyone.
Nextdoor members have been largely reliant on computers for access to the network, but they now can use a free app for iPhone and iPad. I spoke with Nirav Tolia, Nextdoor's co-founder, to find out the differences between the website and the app. Mostly, it's one of convenience.
"Say I saw some suspicious activity, I would have to rush back to my computer to post it," Tolia said. "No more. I can take a photo on my phone and post it on the spot."
Tolia told me about a user who posted a photo of an intruder from a surveillance camera. Later, another resident of the complex saw a man who resembled the one in the photo and snapped a quick photo. Together, the photos were brought to the local police who then had enough information to start an investigation.
And several weeks ago, a Nextdoor member in Southern California was able to alert his neighbors to a mandatory evacuation due to an approaching wildfire -- many were at work and would not otherwise have known.
But Nextdoor is much more than a digital Neighborhood Watch-type of network. In fact, in a survey of the more than 30 million messages posted over a typical month, 20 percent related to crime and safety, while 26 percent were recommendations, including good handymen, tailors and babysitters.
"In that respect, Nextdoor is the Yelp for neighborhoods," Tolia said.
How people use Nextdoor varies from the useful, such as a simple way to meet neighbors, to the essential, like a neighborhood in Oklahoma City that is using the app to find clothing for a family who lost everything in the recent tornadoes.
Like the Web-based version, the Nextdoor app consists of a newsfeed that contains posts from neighbors, and frequently, from city officials and law enforcement who choose to participate, along with an inbox for exchanging direct messages between neighbors.
I asked Tolia about possible problems with difficult neighbors -- you know, the ones you can picture filling up the newsfeed with trivial complaints or personal gripes. Nextdoor does offer a mute feature, which prevents a neighbor's complaints from reaching another's newsfeed. (And the blocked neighbor won't be alerted.)
However, Tolia said there are rarely problems of this kind, which he attributes to people having to use their real names and addresses. While users can flag messages, very few do. In fact, Tolia estimated that less than 10 messages in a million are ever flagged.
"Treating neighbors badly doesn't give anyone any benefits, so people don't do it," he said. "The result has been a very civil community."
If you're interested in joining Nextdoor, visit the site at nextdoor.com. You'll type in your address and confirm it on a Google map. Once Nextdoor has pinpointed your location, it will ask you to join either through Facebook (Don't worry, it just makes the process a bit quicker; no information is shared to Facebook) or with your name, sex and a password. Nextdoor must then verify your name and address in one of three ways -- all of which are free. You can use a debit or credit card (no information is stored), request a call to your phone (your billing address must match your physical address) or become verified via a postcard that will be mailed to your residence.
It's also good to know that a Nextdoor neighborhood network has been delineated by the company. Only those within its boundaries may join. Further, all information within the network, including member data and posts, is not searchable by Google -- Nextdoor has a "closed-door" policy, which in this case is a good thing.
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