Where Tech Is Helping People Become Better Neighbors
These social media companies are focusing on fostering connections in real life, not just on their apps.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the new networking could mean sharing space — and friendship — with your neighbors.
When Katie Gordon first moved to Napa Valley, the full-time nurse and single mom of twins felt alienated and alone. Desperate for friendship — and a little help — she took to the community with a strange request: “Grandmother wanted!” she posted to the Nextdoor app, a digital networking platform for local neighborhoods.
It was a strange choice. Social media, often blamed for stoking divisions and reinforcing social bubbles, was being used to get people out of their bubbles. And yet, it worked like a charm. Her post received dozens of comments, with neighbors offering to be the “village” the newcomer didn’t have — from offers to take her kids to karate and dance lessons to general encouragement. Gordon isn’t alone.
For several years now, the internet — while connecting the world — has also drawn criticism for spawning a culture of isolation, where your living room can become your world and physical interactions can appear unnecessary. Now, a growing number of apps are emerging — and expanding fast — with the aim of helping neighbors connect with each other. In the process, they’re countering technology’s contribution in cocooning individuals from their societies.
In 2018, Google launched an app called Neighbourly, specifically targeted at India. The beta version of the app, which crowdsources area reviews on everything from the best parks to the safest streets, was downloaded 1.5 million times by the end of the year. The app was initially available in just two cities — Mumbai and Jaipur — but has now been expanded to five more. Peerby, in the Netherlands, encourages people to borrow from their neighbors. The firm drew $2.2 million through a crowdfunding campaign in 2016.
We have stopped having personal interactions. One of our missions is to reverse that.
Joseph Woodbury, CEO, Neighbor
Utah-headquartered Neighbor launched in 2017; it allows users to share storage space with other locals. Another app, Neighbors — with an s — started in May 2018 and allows locals to report suspicious activity they’ve seen in the community to each other. It had more than a million active users by the end of the year. Park Circa allows neighbors to coordinate their timings to efficiently use limited parking spaces. Meanwhile Nextdoor, an early mover into this space — it launched in 2011 — now reaches 240,000 neighborhoods in 10 countries. For Gordon, the online posting led to a real-life dinner meeting with three other women in her new community, who then agreed to meet monthly.
“We formed a bond over shared feelings of isolation, the desire to overcome our different but overlapping personal hurdles [and] shared stories of challenges and triumphs,” she says.
To be sure, other digital sites such as Meetup and Craigslist have existed as local bulletin boards of the web. But they’ve focused on one-on-one interactions instead of broader exchanges of experiences or opportunities for sharing that help in community building. The new wave of neighborhood-specific apps also pointedly favors verification over the anonymity that has traditionally marked digital platforms for everything from dating to classified ads.
Nextdoor is “made up of real people at real addresses,” as the company puts it, requiring verified names and locations. “This encourages neighbors to be their better selves online, leads to healthier and productive dialogue and inspires neighbors to lend a helping hand,” says Jenny Mayfield, head of communications at NextDoor.
Amid the proliferation of bots and fake profiles online today, as well as growing instances of breaches in data privacy, such attempts at verification make sense.
Another key difference? These community-building programs rebel against the capitalistic urge to keep users on their platforms as much as possible. That’s in contrast to the models of companies like Facebook, which created the “Like” button and metered notification alerts as a way of dominating your time and attention all day long. “Social media was supposed to connect us, but in fact, it separated us in a lot of ways. We have stopped having personal interactions,” says Joseph Woodbury, CEO and founder of Neighbor. “One of our missions is to reverse that.”
Even business relationships take on new meaning when conducted through a lens of togetherness. For instance, actual home sharing — where the owner is present during the guest’s stay — was only 20 percent of Airbnb’s U.S. business in 2016, according to a report by real estate research company CBRE Hotels’ Americas Research. The rest of Airbnb’s revenue nationwide — $4.6 billion — came from whole-unit rentals where the owner was not present. “That’s not home sharing; that’s a business,” the report concluded.
The Neighbor app, which allows home owners to rent out space in their basements, garages, attics or other rooms for storage, has avoided much of that impersonality. Some two-thirds of active hosts reported that they were likely to help their renters during loading and unloading of their goods, even going so far as to drive a truck to their renters’ homes to help load stuff up. In one case, an elderly woman using the app to make some extra cash met a renter who had a great recommendation for a local tree-cutting service when she needed one. Another host, a middle school teacher, said she could make $10,000 a year renting out the space, which otherwise would go unused.
Nextdoor’s success stories are similar. In one case, Abraham Walker, a New Orleans resident, was able to found a men’s group shortly after moving to Alexandria, Virginia — mostly dads, they have hosted board game nights and other get-togethers. Another man, Theodore Trendman, wanted to share his love for a local Chinese buffet after moving to Whitter, California, (population: 85,000) from Los Angeles … and suddenly found himself hosting monthly dinner parties featuring as many as 50 people.
“The goal is we are actually making informed decisions about our community instead of comparing us to other communities,” Trendman told the Whittier Daily News after his idea blew up. In a time of disinformation and isolation, it’s hard to imagine a more worthwhile endeavor for the tech of tomorrow.