Social networking site brings neighbors together

Posted Tuesday, Dec. 03, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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More information Nextdoor by the numbers As of Nov. 23, there were 24,000 Nextdoor neighborhood websites in the U.S., and 5,000 were in Texas, according to Nextdoor. In Fort Worth, there are 177 active sites and 89 in the pilot stage, the company said. The company says it has partnered with police departments in the following North Texas communities to build neighborhood websites: Carrollton; Duncanville; Red Oak; Garland; Euless; North Richland Hills; Cedar Hill; Denton; Fort Worth; Frisco; Irving; Plano; Dallas; Richardson; and Richland Hills.

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The red 1996 Pontiac Firebird was always parked outside Chris Hughes’ home in the South Hills neighborhood — until one morning last February.

He had stepped outside to get the newspaper and when he saw that his prized car was missing, he quickly reported the theft to police. And then he left for work.

Patrol officers weren’t the only ones who started looking for the Firebird.

Charlotte Sobel, a member of the South Hills Citizens on Patrol group, posted a note about the theft on the neighborhood’s page on Nextdoor, a social networking service that creates websites for neighborhoods.

She heard about it from a former neighborhood association president, who got the word from Hughes’ mother.

“I said, ‘I’ll put it out on Nextdoor,’ because it goes out to a lot of people, and it’s the only ‘bulletin board’ we have in the neighborhood,” Sobel said.

Within an hour, fellow COP member Harvey Tanz, who had just seen the post on Nextdoor, spotted the car about a quarter-mile from Hughes’ home.

The steering column was broken, and some carpeting was torn, but Hughes soon restored the car. He has since sold it to a friend.

“I was surprised,” Hughes said. “They found it before the police.”

Nextdoor made the difference, Tanz said.

“If it wasn’t for Nextdoor, probably we wouldn’t have gotten it that quickly, or at all,” he said. “But it’s just one of the things Nextdoor does.”

A virtual front porch

San Francisco-based Nextdoor, launched in October 2011, has grown to 24,000 neighborhood websites in all 50 states.

Information about crime is about 20 percent of each website’s content, according to Nextdoor. Participants also use it to share information about events such as block parties, to suggest local businesses or services, to recommend baby sitters or to sell a couch.

But unlike other social media, Nextdoor tightly focuses on particular neighborhoods. And it’s open to passing on information about graffiti or suspicious door-to-door salespeople – things that may not fit well with a neighborhood association’s Facebook page.

Leading Nextdoor’s development is co-founder and CEO Nirav Tolia, a 1990 graduate of Odessa Permian High School.

He recalled how in 1987, communities in West Texas, and even the world, intently followed the rescue of 18-month-old Jessica McClure from a well.

“I felt a very strong sense of community that was, absolutely, a driving force for me in starting my company,” Tolia said.

Nextdoor staffers say that residential neighborhoods are the “original social network.” But, they note, the Internet and telecommunication advances have reduced face-to-face communication.

“Technology has made it easy to talk with people geographically far away, but we don’t spend as much time at home,” Tolia said.

Also, there has been a “massive increase in dual working families” in which both adults have careers.

“No one is at home sitting on the porch or in front yard,” he said. “Sometimes we don’t talk to people right outside our front doors.

“But a basic human need is to feel like you’re part of your neighborhood, for you to rely on the neighborhood, and for neighborhoods to rely on you.

“Technology can play a role.”

Mechanics

Residents can sign up for the free service on Nextdoor’s website. But if a website doesn’t yet exist for a specific neighborhood, the company will help create one.

Different techniques are used to determine boundaries, such as the use of city designations of historic neighborhoods or neighborhood associations.

Nextdoor also uses Maponics, a company that produces geographic data, to determine boundaries.

New members must verify their addresses to protect the privacy of everyone using the site.

This is handled several ways. An existing member may vouch for the new applicant or the residence may be verified with a credit card billing addresses. Nextdoor officials say that they never store that information and that it is never used again. Only members with protected passwords can access their neighborhood’s website.

The company offers “apps” for iPhone and Android.

Eventually, Tolia said, Nextdoor plans to sell advertising to local businesses, but it’s currently backed financially by investors including Benchmark and Greylock Partners.

For now, the company is focused on signing up more neighborhoods, and “Texas is leading the charge,” Tolia said.

Nextdoor has 5,000 websites in Texas, according to the company’s latest data. In Fort Worth, 177 have been launched, and 89 are in the pilot stage, Nexdoor says.

“Some people might ask, ‘Don’t you think it’s better for someone to walk across the street and say hello instead using a social network like Nextdoor?’” Tolia said.

“We say, ‘Absolutely.’

“Nextdoor is a tool for introductions, to get people talking.”

A virtual crime watch

In September 2012, Richland Hills was the first city in Texas to connect to Nextdoor.

“We basically matched [neighborhoods] to our patrol grids, so it makes it easy to track and watch,” said officer Sheena Parsons, a crime prevention officer. “In a matter of seconds, we can post out where crime has happened. It’s a virtual crime watch.

“I think my biggest surprise was, a few months after we launched, people would go on and post things, things that they really should have been calling the police about, like a carpet cleaning guy going door to door with no cleaning supplies and no permit.

“People said: ‘Oh, we didn’t want to bother you. Nobody was hurt.’ But we’d rather be there on the front end of something and not just making a report about it later.”

Bill Miller, 817-390-7684 Twitter: @Bill_MillerST

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