It’s Twitter without the trolls, Facebook without the cat videos, a platform for practical concerns rather than personal expression. People on Nextdoor.com share the same kind of information they might write on index cards and tack to the bulletin board of the corner store. And like the bulletin board, it’s strictly local: lost dogs, free kittens, yard sales, church suppers.
When Cathe Myers first moved here, she thought she’d be starting up a “Crozet” page. She found out that even a small town is still too big to be one “neighborhood.” She’s the leader for Yancey Mills, and there are currently 10 other Crozet neighborhoods in the system, with many others still to be represented. Now online are Old Trail, Parkside Village, Westhall, Grayrock Orchard, Beaver Creek Mountain, Cory Farm-Liberty Hall, Wickham Pond, Western Ridge, Crozet Park and Bargamin Park in addition to Yancey Mills.
Cathe and her husband, Russ Myers, own “Gate of Heaven,” a non-profit ministerial retreat. She said she understood the value of networking from other non-profit jobs, and wanted to get to know her new community, more far-flung than her former home in Richmond. She acts as a leader, checking the posts to make sure no inappropriate messages are posted and generally keeping abreast of neighborhood news.
Anne Dreshfield, who’s part of the central Nextdoor staff in San Francisco, said the pattern of use varies little from rural to urban areas. “Neighbors in more rural areas appreciate Nextdoor because homes are more spread out; they’re less likely to run into a neighbor like you would in a more suburban or urban environment.” There are slight variations in topic: “For example, neighbors in San Francisco might discuss a lost house cat, while neighbors in upstate New York are more likely to discuss a lost horse.”
Most messages are informative and helpful. Someone in Old Trail spotted a mountain lion and others who caught a glimpse chimed in. People in several neighborhoods worry about traffic, both congestion and reckless driving through the residential streets. Families want to recommend a tutor, or a plumber, or a restaurant. Someone in Beaver Creek Mountain found an ailing lost dog in hours, thanks to a posting on the site.
A few take a more contentious tone, slamming the same restaurant reviewed positively by others, or making fun of a neighbor’s opinions, or hinting at evidence incriminating a neighbor’s teenager. A recent long discussion about traffic in Old Trail somehow devolved into half-hearted personal insults that were, by Facebook or Twitter standards, very mild. On Nextdoor, a real name in always necessary and confirmed, so no one can impersonate someone else or hide behind a pseudonym.
Nextdoor has community guidelines describing what is and is not allowed on the site, Dreshfield said. “The crux of our Guidelines can be boiled down to one simple statement: ‘Everyone here is your neighbor. Please treat each other with respect.’»
As people all over the world adjust to the idea of cyber neighborliness, Nextdoor has become international. “We launched in the Netherlands in February of this year and in the United Kingdom in September,” Dreshfield said. “In both of those countries, the ways neighbors have used Nextdoor has not varied greatly from the United States. We’ve found that neighbors are neighbors, and their needs are universal.”
Some users have benefitted in ways that go beyond respect. One member wanted to hire transportation to the Albemarle airport and found a neighbor who offered to drive her without charge. Families pass on outgrown children’s clothing and toys including, in one case, some large outdoor structures in good condition, snapped up by a family just before the holidays. One neighbor found a dog and posted its photo before the owner even knew it was lost; others have found hubcaps, cell phones and earrings and searched online for their owners. There’s also a private message function that allows people to talk privately without revealing their emails or phone numbers.
Practical uses for this type of narrowly-focused messaging become more obvious over time. The Albemarle County Police Department was able to notify residents of a scam in the very areas targeted by a fraudulent charity. In New York City, public officials contact a central point for the city’s 1800 Nextdoor neighborhoods when there’s an urgent bulletin or warning. In the works are ways to allow Nextdoor members to reach each other’s cell phones with a short message if there’s an emergency.
Gretchen Zaub of Public West, the popular oyster bar and restaurant in Old Trail, said she’d recently offered a 10 percent discount to anyone who saw her note on Nextdoor. “I can tell by the response that it’s been successful,” she said. “I’m glad to get comments and suggestions, even if it’s like someone recently who didn’t like our fish and chips.” She said the restaurant’s decision to offer more vegetable dishes in the new year was reinforced by comments from Nextdoor users.
“Although of course we want people to come from all over, this (Nextdoor) is our built-in clientele,” she said. “I wish I had discovered it much sooner.”