Many of you will know that since the summer I have been working for the neighbourhood based social network ‘Nextdoor’. The invitation to work for them came at an opportune time for me as I continue to adjust to life post Public Achievement.
This week I am talking about Nextdoor as part of Belfast Design Week, and I thought this is a good time to tell you what I have been learning from the experience. I continue to do some work with Nextdoor and it is great to see it taking hold and being used in Belfast and more widely in Northern Ireland. I am increasingly convinced that it is the social network we’ve been waiting for! This recent Belfast Telegraph article gives you a good insight into how it grew locally. It has grown faster in Belfast than anywhere else in the UK.
Ok – so you’re thinking “…well he would say that!”, and maybe “why on Earth would I need another social network in my life?” – but please read on.
Why is Nextdoor different?
Nextdoor is a very different kind of social network and it fills an important gap we probably didn’t realise was there! While Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are all about promoting ourselves, our causes, our businesses and so on, Nextdoor is very much about utility. People use it to buy and sell stuff or give it away; to give each other recommendations for plumbers, electricians and joiners; to locate stray pets; to discuss local issues; and event organise locally.
Three of my favourite things about Nextdoor are how mundane most of the posts are, how quickly it makes you feel that you are more connected to the community in which you live, and how it turns ‘virtual’ relationships into real world connections as people organise to meet up for events, to discuss a local issue or just for coffee (or tea!).
The mundane stuff is often about ‘canine waste products’, parking and (lately) bins! It is neighbours sharing small pieces of information with each other about the everyday life of a community. The important thing here is that Nextdoor makes the sharing of this information easier, and helps ensure that it reaches a wider audience than it might otherwise. Nextdoor is the first truly local social network – as it is based on your location, and you can only ‘join’ your own community, and you need to be able to verify that you live there.
One of the lovely features about Nextdoor is that neighbours ‘grow’ their community by inviting other neighbours using postcards (dispatched from London). It is a nice ‘old-school’ way of being invited and verify those who open the postcards.
In terms of helping people feel connected to their community – take the example of one of my local neighbours. Balazs and his young family are from Hungary. They just moved into the community and signed up to Nextdoor right away. Luckily for them, Ballynafeigh already had a vibrant network of more than 300 active neighbours. So when they need to find out about local childcare and local events, all they had to do was ask!
Another lovely feature recently was that Nextdoor created a ‘Trick or Treat’ map for Halloween. This allowed neighbours to show if they were willing to welcome trick or treaters to their door. For Balazs and his family they hadn’t experience Halloween before – so Nextdoor provided a perfect opportunity for them to meet neighbours, dress up and eat sweets!
Lots of people, all over Belfast, have now met neighbours that they wouldn’t otherwise have met – from the launch celebration in the Ormeau Park in September, to local events that they have found out about through the local network. One neighbour in my area walked past a derelict church that has been derelict for around 30 years. She was struck that it was a place (the church and the large house beside it) that the community should ‘take over’ for community use. She’s now set up a group who support the idea and who are working together to see if they can make her dream become a reality.
Nextdoor in a Divided City
Now this is all very well and good I hear you say – but what about in the tougher places?
Well, Nextdoor is there too. We have neighbourhoods growing right across our city – and in East Belfast almost every single neighbourhood is either piloting Nextdoor, or their local neighbourhood has launched.
When I was recruited to work for Nextdoor, one of the things I insisted on (and they were highly amenable to) was having a key say in the mapping of our local communities. I knew that if we tried to create communities that crossed our sectarian divides we would be seen as being involved in social engineering – and worse, the neighbours wouldn’t identify with the community to which they were allocated. This was a careful and painstaking process – made much easier with the skilled support of Lewis Baston in the UK and Erica Fagan at Nextdoor HQ in San Francisco – or as I prefer to describe them – the Mapping Gods!
What hasn’t happened a lot yet – but will – is interaction across these divides and ‘interfaces’. Not only can you use Nextdoor to communicate with your neighbours in your neighbourhood, you can also talk to and share stuff with all the other communities around you. So imagine you see that pram for sale, or a guitar or a lawnmower – something you have been looking for – but it is for sale in a community you’ve never ventured into before – right beside where you live. Wouldn’t you take the risk? Or at the very least arrange to meet elsewhere? Somewhere you both feel safe?
You might also be invited to an event in the neighbouring area, and you might just decide, maybe with one or two other neighbours, that you should accept the invitation and acknowledge the gesture. Or you might find that the neighbouring community is vexed by the same problems as yours – and realise that by working together you might accomplish more.
In these ways my hope is that Nextdoor can contribute to small steps that connect communities that have sparse connections currently, or where such connections are mediated through stakeholders, resources and strategies. It is not in any sense that Nextdoor would create competition to such things – rather that it can add to the connections and help create neighbourliness between as well as within neighbourhoods.
I don’t want to get carried away with this – Nextdoor is just a social network at the end of the day – but there is something very special about building connections like this. Where other social networks have weakened our sense of the local, Nextdoor is helping to rebuild it. In Belfast it can not only contribute to the ‘bonding’ social capital for which we are infamous – but also the ‘linking’ social capital which has been sparse, but which is growing as we develop a shared sense of our neighbourhoods, city and society.