David Milliron lives in Avondale Estates, a small, historic city about seven miles east of downtown Atlanta.
Never heard of it? Well, you should have, because Avondale Estates is home to the very first Waffle House, a restaurant chain very important to early morning Southern society, where folks meet up for hot waffles, coffee and who knows what else all the while exchanging gossip and important local news.
Milliron, who had been an Avondale Estates council commissioner, was looking for a more modern and efficient way for citizens of his community to exchange information and came upon Nextdoor.com, a free platform that enables neighbors to create private social networks for their neighborhoods.
"Nextdoor has worked out beautifully," Milliron said. "We have over one-third of our city already participating. Although I was involved early on, it has taken roots and no longer do I have to be the one. Organizations are posting; real estate agents are posting; people are making reservations and buying and selling things."
He added, "It has been an invaluable tool to bring our community closer together."
Nextdoor is slowly snaking its way across America.
The small technology company was founded in 2010 by a group of Silicon Valley veterans who had experience creating online communities going back to the 1990s.
"They recognized there was a lack of community in the world, and what is a better way to bring people back together than through social networking?" said Dabney Lawless, vice president of communications for Nextdoor.
More importantly, the concept proved so intriguing that it was funded by a couple of major equity investors, Benchmark Capital and Shasta Ventures, both of Menlo Park, Calif. One of the outside board members is Rich Barton, chairman and co-founder of Zillow.
After about a year testing its program in 176 neighborhoods across America, the company was officially launched in October 2011. Nextdoor claims more than 2,000 communities are now on board.
Growth has been all word of mouth, Lawless said.
"Nextdoor was created based on the idea that the neighborhood is one of the most important and useful communities in a person’s life," according to Nextdoor.com. "Our mission is to bring back a sense of community to the neighborhood."
OK, all sounds good. Even warm and fuzzy, but how does it work?
Basically, each neighborhood creates a private Nextdoor website that is — and this is important — accessible only to the residents of that neighborhood. The information on the website is not sold to others nor is it indexed by Google or Yahoo. The only people who can see what’s going on in your neighborhood vis-à-vis Nextdoor are the people who live in that neighborhood.
It’s even difficult to fake belonging to a Nextdoor neighborhood because addresses need to be verified.
"These are privately closed networks specifically created for neighborhoods," Lawless said. "You decide how you want to set up Nextdoor in your neighborhood. You create the boundaries. Whatever makes logical sense. We have some neighborhoods that are almost a whole town, and we have neighborhoods that are just two or three streets."
Inviting neighbors to join the network is easy. Simply click the "invite neighbors" link on the website. Or, one just as easily can do emails, print fliers or send postcards. If postcards are sent, Nextdoor will pay for the postage and mail on your behalf.
Another cool feature of Nextdoor is that it includes a neighborhood map and directory of residents, so it becomes a little easier to understand with whom you might be exchanging messages.
These messages might include: the city is doing roadwork in the neighborhood; finding a babysitter; old furniture for sale; organizing a barbecue; recommending a local restaurant; or creating alerts if there have been, for example, burglaries in the neighborhood.
The success of Nextdoor in the Marin County, Calif., community of Laurel Grove had a lot to do with perceived threat to property.
"Back in December, I had just read about Nextdoor in my local newspaper and I thought it looked promising for organizing a playgroup," said Heather McPhail Sridharan. "I thought it would be fun to try this out online, a lot easier than getting all the emails and coordinating times."
To Sridharan’s surprise, Nextdoor just took off. "It was viral. Now, we have almost 300 members."
What really spurred Nextdoor participation was a crime wave in the neighborhood, a series of break-ins stretching over a couple of weeks.
"A group of us decided to put some fliers into everyone’s mailbox saying this site exists and it could keep us connected," Sridharan said.
"If we heard about someone soliciting door to door, it would be posted on the Nextdoor site," Sridharan said. "People wanted to be in the know about what was going on relating to the break-ins. If solicitors came in the neighborhood, the police were called."
Not surprising, the crime wave dissipated entirely.
"Our neighborhood is a mixed bag of younger families and older residents," Sridharan said. "The ones that are really posting a lot and being active are the older generation. I don’t know if they are not on Facebook or they remember a time when neighborhoods used to be connected, but we had a couple of neighborhood meetings and overwhelmingly the people who attended were the older generation of folks."
If you’re wondering how much Nextdoor costs to use, the answer is zero. The company is in a startup phase, focusing on building out the network in the best possible manner. It can do that because of the venture capital funding.
However, the model is designed to make money. The vision is to partner with local businesses in a Groupon kind of model.
"We’ve got several years before we have to think about monetization," Lawless said. "Right now the main focus of the company is perfecting the user experience."
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer in Arizona and author of several books. His latest book, "Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis," is now available for sale on Amazon.com.
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