Nextdoor Wants to Take Neighborhood Watch to the Next Level

Nowadays, you probably don't even know your neighbors, but that doesn't mean you can't meet them with the help of a new kind of social network. Think of it like online dating, only useful.

Remember back in the day when Facebook was filled with people you actually knew? Well reach even further back, before the Y2K scare, before the Clinton years and before the hole in the ozone to a tamer, more innocent time. It was a time when neighbors knew each others' names and called the police shady characters were snooping around the houses. This was the age of Neighborhood Watch and Tupperware parties, when there were no drugs in Little League baseball and a milk man left you treats on your doorstep. The social network back then amounted to people who knew each other helping out their neighbors for the sake of being neighborly.

Paint this picture with most idyllic palette of watercolors and hang it on your wall, because those days are over. But the private, local social network Nextdoor wants to make a 21st century version of it. Nextdoor's been around since 2011 when it beta tested its hyper secure site in 176 neighborhoods in 26 states around the country. Less than 18 months later, it's in 8,075 neighborhoods in all 50 states, though the company won't say how many actual users it has. (It's no fun to be in a neighborhood with only eight other people like I am, but I'll get back to that in a second.)

To stoke yet more growth the company redesigned the site from the ground up and overhauled its services based on the features people used most. I recently met with Nextdoor CEO Nirav Tolia who walked me through the newly redesigned site. He says that Nextdoor 2.0 will "grow 100 percent through word-of-mouth," without the help of Facebook or Google or anybody else.

This is the main page you see when you log in to Nextdoor. Links to specific features are on the left, and there's a News Feed-like stream on content in the center.

To understand Nextdoor 2.0, it helps to wrap your head around Nextdoor 1.0, since the basics of the social network haven't changed dramatically. The core tenet of this private social network is, well, privacy. Unlike a lot of other sites on the web that let you sign up with two clicks and Facebook account, Nextdoor actually makes it really difficult to join the site. This is to keep the riffraff out.

"It’s a lot of friction to join," says Tolia. Not only do you actually have to fill out all of the forms when setting up your profile, but you must also verify your address either by phone, credit card or typing in a code mailed to your house. (When was the last time Facebook mailed something to you?) Once you're in, you'll join the local network that's been set up for your neighborhood. If one doesn't exist, you have to create it by inviting nine of your neighbors to join. 

I've got to be honest: the friction thing sort of stinks, but it's also arguably Nextdoor's secret sauce. Because once you're in, you know that you're surrounded by people that actually live near you. From there, the features all make great sense. You can post classified listings to try and sell your old bowling ball, or post events happening in your area. You can send messages to neighbors and make recommendations for stuff like doctors and radiator specialists. So instead of the clusterfuck that is Yelp or the mess that is Angie's List, you're supposed to get a real word-of-mouth experience. Recommendations are actually one of the most popular features on the site, second only to its crime and safety section.

In Nextdoor 2.0, the company's doubled down on its virtual Neighborhood Watch idea. It was already a popular feature in the original version of the site, but by reaching out to local police departments and finding ways to enhance existing features. Nextdoor can already boast about how its website has helped fight crime and find lost pets in communities across the country. Now they're taking the idea of the virtual Neighborhood Watch to the next level.

There's a new section just for crime and safety, as well as push notification support for alerts and emergencies. "On a Maslov's hierarchy basis, there's nothing more valuable than safety," Tolia told me. "It's the thing that makes people join Nextdoor. It's also the thing that makes it impossible for them to leave." Nextdoor has also partnered with local police and fire departments in nearly 100 towns across the country. Dallas, Texas is one of the more enthusiastic partners. "Nextdoor makes it easy for neighbors to establish their own virtual neighborhood watches, which are vital in combating crime and strengthening communities," says Dallas police chief David Brown.

From here on out, Nextdoor wants to expand its horizons. This doesn't just mean growing a massive user base like Facebook — the site can benefit from quality over quantity — but also letting existing users better explore the area around them. Nextdoor 2.0 includes a feature that lets you see a limited amount of content from nearby neighborhoods, and you could imagine how the future could bring different tiers of neighborhoods.

Maybe your block gets a super intimate network, your neighborhood gets slightly more open one and your borough gets a basic site. Or they might find themselves doing something completely different, like some kind of sharing program that would mean you'd never have to buy a leaf blower if your neighbor already has one. 

Now you can explore beyond the immediate vicinity with the Nearby Neighborhoods feature. You can also see how people create teeny tiny neighborhoods, a la Refrigerator Row.

But at the end of the day, all of these features are only cool if there are people to use them.  The red on the map up top represents all of the households that are not on Nextdoor. It's not easy being green. Other bloggers that are trying out Nextdoor 2.0 have made similar complaints. And who knows how real people who live in real neighborhoods will react?Brooklyn, New York and suburban USA are not the same thing.

Along with the site upgrade, Nextdoor also announced another $21.6 million in funding, so it has plenty of runway to figure out how to populate its real life social network with real, living human beings. If that's not appealing to you, there's always Facebook to fall back on.

Topics: social networks, Nextdoor

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