Localized online networks are a new way for neighbors to connect

08/17/2014 7:48 PM

08/17/2014 7:48 PM

Erica Price woke at 2 a.m. in her bedroom, too afraid to go downstairs. A stranger was trying to break in through her home’s back door.

Luckily, her dog scared off the stranger, who left only footprints in the snow and a damaged door frame.

She called the police and later that day posted about the crime on her Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood’s private online network, Nextdoor.

Neighbors replied, offering camaraderie and information — someone else had been burglarized earlier that week.

“It confirmed to me that I wasn’t imagining things,” Price said. “It was a form of validation. No, I’m not crazy. Yes, this did happen over here.”

Neighborhood news no longer moves only over fences. Online networks based on geographic boundaries and tailored to neighborhood needs — public safety, classifieds, recommendations, events — are increasingly being used in the Kansas City area.

Nextdoor is the newest neighborhood service. Kansas City-based eNeighbors has been used in the area for years.

Nextdoor, a San Francisco-based company, launched in 2011 and has grown rapidly in this area, said Jen Burke, a company spokeswoman.

In 2012, about 20 neighborhood websites used Nextdoor. In 2013, there were 96. Now there are more than 470.

Anyone can sign up for Nextdoor or set up a neighborhood. It’s free, and a user only needs to verify that he or she lives within the boundaries of the neighborhood.

Seeing the spike in Nextdoor’s growth, some area cities now want to partner with it as a way to get information to residents.

The city of Kansas City, Kan., announced its partnership with Nextdoor Aug. 14, Burke said. Kansas City, Mo., and its Police Department already announced a partnership on July 9.

Chris Hernandez, a Kansas City spokesman, said the city won’t be able to get involved in neighbor-to-neighbor communication, but it can send mass inquiries or notices.

“This is more than sending messages,” Hernandez said. “This is about building a stronger city and safer neighborhood.”

Sense of community

In a Pew Research report released in 2010, of 2,258 Americans polled, 28 percent didn’t know any of their neighbors by name, while 29 percent knew only some of their neighbors by name.

Larry Marsh said Nextdoor has been a game changer. People in his Red Bridge neighborhood in south Kansas City are saying hello to residents they never knew before, he said.

Marsh founded a Nextdoor site in November 2012 after having success with a group email list in his old neighborhood in Indiana.

Nextdoor’s website lets the whole neighborhood participate or speak up as much as they want, he said. By talking about community issues, he said, his neighbors are sensitive to the plight of the person who lives next door.

“It’s making the neighborhood a family, just like how the Internet is making the world a family,” Marsh said.

Nextdoor also helps local organizations, he said. If the local Methodist church had a craft sale, the neighbors would attend in force. The Greek Orthodox church having a bake sale? Neighbors will be eating baklava. The synagogue hosting an event about Hebrew food and electric cars? The event will find its way on Nextdoor.

Don’t think of those as mundane issues, said Robert Sampson, a sociology professor at Harvard University and the author of “Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect.”

“The basic finding in Chicago, but in other neighborhoods as well, is social infrastructure really matters a lot,” Sampson said.

Areas that have a level of trust tend to be better, he said. They have more satisfaction and lower crime rates. Neighborhood ties matter.

Sampson, who has advised Nextdoor, said the network is too new to gauge its effect, but he thinks the network is a new, adaptable technology aimed at addressing the old problem of neighborhood distrust.

But even with constant online interaction, talking face-to-face won’t go out of style anytime soon. In the same Pew report, 46 percent of Americans talked with neighbors in person about community issues.

Bill Hurrelbrink, a resident of the Piper area of Kansas City, Kan., said his neighborhood does not have a Nextdoor network. It uses a Facebook group, but not seriously.

“Nothing beats a face-to-face conversation,” Hurrelbrink said. “There is only so much type can do.”

And Joyce Riley, an eight-year neighborhood association president in Kansas City, is skeptical that technology can solve her urban core neighborhood’s problems. Although the neighborhood has a growing, active Nextdoor website that acts as an effective crime watch, she is not on Nextdoor.

“Some of the people don’t understand computers,” Riley said. “It’s about technology and money. I could be buying food with that money.”

But Riley said it’s time for younger volunteers to replace her generation, an older class of people still active in the community. Riley, who has lived in the East 23rd Street PAC neighborhood for 40 years, said she is worn out.

“Maybe some young person can come in with something bright and exciting,” she said.

Marsh said he hoped Nextdoor would appeal to a younger demographic that doesn’t typically go to neighborhood association meetings.

Young people “share physical things, they share ideas and they share concerns for each other,” he said.

Not quite new

Though Nextdoor’s presence in Kansas City is recent, geographically based networks aren’t new.

Chris Stock, a spokesman for eNeighbors, said the service started in 2005 and has grown to 150 neighborhoods in the Kansas City area. Many of its subscribers come from southern Johnson County. ENeighbors offers a product similar to Nextdoor, but it must be initiated by a homeowners association and paid for through association dues.

Stock said of the neighborhoods subscribed to eNeighborhoods, engagement levels have doubled in the last 12 months. He said the company can help neighborhood organizers, who often work hard in thankless jobs.

“I think 99 percent of the time it fosters positive neighborhood communication,” Stock said.

Unlike eNeighbors, Nextdoor is free for its users. It stays afloat using the $100 million in venture capital it has raised in the last year, Burke said. How it will make money in the future is uncertain.

“Nextdoor anticipates that a future revenue model will focus on connecting local businesses and service providers with residents in a smart, helpful way,” Burke said.

She said the company wanted the transition to be natural and not in any way “annoying” to users. Its current focus on building a broad user base before making profits is comparable to the early days of Facebook.

Stephanie Feld, an organizer for Nextdoor, said even though Nextdoor is described as “the Facebook of neighborhoods,” its content is not like Facebook’s.

“Please don’t post in there what you are eating today,” Feld said.

Discussions often are issue-oriented, and certain posts go in specific categories. People called “leads,” who are often volunteers in the community, monitor information.

One Kansas City Nextdoor group recently noted that a lost hamster and turtle had been found.

Although Nextdoor says the average size of one its neighborhoods is 750 households, Feld said 300 to 400 households is the recommended size to keep content manageable. Smaller blocks or interest groups can create private groups within the larger network.

Neighborhood networks can also hook up to other neighborhoods around it, a feature often used for communicating crime and lost pets.

“We know crime doesn’t know any boundaries, and pets don’t know any boundaries, either,” said Tracy Enos, a Nextdoor organizer.

Sarah Boyd, a public relations specialist for the Kansas City Police Department, said Nextdoor might he useful in establishing crime patterns. For example, she said a user in one Nextdoor neighborhood created a map of unreported crimes in his neighborhood using Nextdoor posts and handed it over to the police. Now the police have a suspect.

Feld also said Nextdoor could help during extreme weather.

“In the cold, no one is going to want to go out and go to a meeting once a month when it’s snowing,” Feld said. “But they’d rather be able to know about issues through direct messages.”

To reach Crystal Thomas, call 816-234-4068 or send email to cthomas@kcstar.com.

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