Hyperlocal efforts got an infusion of cash earlier this month, when the neighborhood social network Nextdoor scored $21.6 million from leading venture capitalists. The backers — led by Greylock Partners David Sze, who has invested in Facebook, LinkedIn, and Pandora — are betting that the platform for private, geographically based forums will be the next hot thing in local news and information and could even build community in neighborhoods across the country in the process.
They’re onto something with the potential to foster community. A long line of research identifies conversation as key to fostering civic dialogue and a sense of belonging. Jurgen Habermas’ theory of the Public Sphere, in which residents come together to discuss the news of the day, is one example. In a more recent one, USC Annenberg Professor Sandra Ball-Rokeach took the concept to a neighborhood level. Through studies of more than a dozen Los Angeles communities, she found that interactions between neighbors — whether online or off — can help increase local civic engagement.
But Ball-Rokeach’s research has also found that conversations need to be complemented by neighborhood news coverage and links to local organizations to have significant impact. Moreover, diverse communities require focused efforts that are tailored to their shared needs. Often such efforts must cross linguistic and ethnic lines and the digital divide. These findings have impacted our efforts to create a local news website, Alhambra Source, in a predominantly immigrant Los Angeles suburb. Based on research into community information needs, the site has elements in three languages and works with residents and organizations to report local stories.
Still, a challenge for communities is that Nextdoor’s emergence as a relatively low-cost model to jumpstart forums comes at a time when a recent attempt at hyperlocal news sites, and local news generally, has been faltering. The New York Times announced last summer that it will end its affiliation with its hyperlocal sites. Earlier this month NBC shut down the local data collection and mapping site Everyblock (Nextdoor already has an ad up saying “Missing EveryBlock? join 8,000+ neighborhoods who use Nextdoor”). And AOL’s hyperlocal venture, Patch, still is falling short on promised advertising revenues.
Nextdoor CEO Nirav Tolia, who grew up in Odessa, Texas, of “Friday Night Lights” fame, said he based the site on the type of bulletin boards found at Laundromats and supermarkets and believes that his business will be able to succeed where other hyperlocal efforts have stumbled. One thing that might help, according to Gigaom senior writer Mathew Ingram, is Nextdoor’s restrictive nature. Users must prove their identity (or at least their address) in order to join one of Nextdoor’s neighborhood networks. Another thing Ingram mentions briefly, and what could be key to its future success, is that the Nextdoor model is less expensive than Patch, which hired an editor for every community (though now Patch, too, is considering lower cost alternatives in its efforts to become profitable.)
Nextdoor and other forums can play a crucial part in a healthy news ecosystem, but they work best when tailored to local needs and in conjunction with other news coverage. Julie Moos, Director of Poynter Online, noted in a comment on Ingram’s article that hyperlocal news sites and neighborhood networks can be complementary. “Through Nextdoor I learn about breakins (sic) within a three-block radius of my house; through Patch I learn about the proposed apartment complex being discussed at the town council meeting. Through Patch, I learn about a restaurant opening; through Nextdoor I learn whether my neighbors like the new restaurant,” Moos wrote. “Without Patch and Nextdoor, I would know almost nothing about this community of 17,000.”
Online neighborhood forums are not new, and two that have been held up as models for stimulating discussion and resident involvement are E-Democracy.org in Minnesota and FrontPorch Forum in Vermont. E-Democracy’s founder, Steven Clift, who started the site in 1994, likes to describe the forms as online town halls that “support participation in public life, strengthen communities, and build democracy.” To do so, his team works door-to-door in diverse communities, hires people from the area they are targeting, and employs community organizing tactics. A difference Clift points to between E-Democracy forums and Nextdoor is that they include organizations and businesses, not just residents, to foster dialogue and ensure that they are not “virtual gated communities.” But even with all of that effort, Clift shared on a recent visit to Los Angeles that lost pets are often the most popular posts and that they rely on local news coverage to provide context. Nextdoor has its share of pet posts, too, but as Mashable points out, 20 percent of the content is about crime, making it work like an online neighborhood watch program, as well.
In my local Los Angeles neighborhood in Echo Park, nobody has set up a Nextdoor forum yet, but I have the benefit of at least three local news sites including a Patch and other online bulletin boards. One case that works particularly well is The Eastsider LA, a site started by former Los Angeles Times reporter Jesus Sanchez, who also happens to be my neighbor. In the past two weeks, seven out of eight posts from community members on his forum have been about pets — from chickens found on the entrance to the freeway to a found dog that had just been skunked. Sanchez creates most of the editorial content himself, from well-reported short posts about the record number of City Council candidates to why my favorite local gardening store is being forced out because of higher rents. The combination of the forum and reported news has changed my relationship to my neighborhood, informing me, making me feel more connected, raising issues and generating discussion — in other words, it has fostered a sense of community.
A version of this story appeared in GOOD magazine.