Katherine Boehret

Won’t You Be in My Nextdoor Network?

If you’re like a lot of people, you use Facebook to keep in touch with friends who live hundreds of miles away. The neighbors you can wave to from your front yard? Not so much.

Though it sounds counterintuitive, you might get to know your next-door neighbors better by joining a free social network called Nextdoor from a company of the same name.

This hyper-local site verifies users by address, uses each person’s real name and doesn’t allow people access to a network if they don’t actually live in the neighborhood. It isn’t focused on making new friends; rather, it’s designed to connect neighbors. On Nextdoor, people can talk about the new construction on the block, ask if anyone wants to participate in a nanny share or sell an old dining-room table.

Nextdoor launched in 2011 and is now running in every state, in over 11,500 neighborhoods. It adds about 40 or so neighborhoods each day, according to its co-founder and CEO, Nirav Tolia. The company plans to release an app for Apple’s iOS devices within the next month and an Android app sometime this summer. Nextdoor currently works as a website only, which can be accessed on mobile browsers.

I’ve been testing this website for the past week in my Washington, D.C., neighborhood, which already had a Nextdoor network, while a colleague got someone to start a new network in his suburban Maryland neighborhood. Though I’m skeptical of joining yet another social network, Nextdoor’s neighborhood-based approach made it a standout network with real value. Its layout is similar to Facebook with posts and comments by users. Best of all, it’s a vast improvement on antiquated listservs that start to feel like spam.

Map of a Nextdoor network color-codes members, invited neighbors and nonmembers

Map of a Nextdoor network color-codes members, invited neighbors and nonmembers

If you sign up for the site and find a neighborhood network doesn’t yet exist for your address, you can start one, but this means you’ll be the lead, or head organizer of the network. The job includes setting neighborhood boundaries, removing inappropriate messages and describing your neighborhood in the About section. You can appoint someone else to be the lead. Neighbors can be invited by the lead or other neighbors via email or by a postcard from Nextdoor.

Nextdoor has downfalls, though. Over 50 townhouses and apartment units in my condo complex appeared on Nextdoor as if they were a single household, which made it tricky to invite my neighbors to join. Sites like Zillow.com that use their own location data have no problem identifying the individual units in my complex, which has been around since the 1980s. But Nextdoor is relying on third-party data that isn’t as precise.

I also took issue with my neighborhood boundaries, which were drawn up by my network’s lead. I’ve lived in my neighborhood since 2002 and told the lead that his boundaries weren’t accurately drawn. Neighborhood boundaries can be discussed with any lead or with the company and redrawn.

The neighborhood news feed shows posts, alerts and comments from neighbors.

The neighborhood news feed shows posts, alerts and comments from neighbors.

I was delighted to find 89 “neighbors” already using my Nextdoor neighborhood, along with 242 “nearby neighbors,” who live in four nearby neighborhoods. Each post can be limited to only your own neighborhood or expanded to the nearby ones. I was intrigued to browse other users’ profiles, where they posted brief biographies and other personal details.

But the private nature of Nextdoor assures random users won’t be browsing the network. Users can only see detailed information about the people in their own neighborhood, and can opt whether or not to display an exact address or just the name of the street where they live.

I added a little information to my profile, including a photo, a list of my hobbies and how long I’ve been a resident in the neighborhood. Nextdoor verifies each person’s address by using one of four methods: credit- or debit-card number, landline phone number, mobile-phone number or by mailing a postcard that includes an invite code.

A neighborhood lead can send, free of charge, up to 200 postcards each month inviting neighbors to join the site. After 10 neighbors are verified, leads can send out up to 100 free postcards a month, and members can send up to 20 free postcards a month. People can print out fliers in a variety of designs to post in their neighborhood.

Unlike listservs, Nextdoor lets users tweak how many email updates they get and how often they receive them. Someone could opt out of email, choosing only to read the website posts. A useful feature is an urgent alert system that sends SMS text messages to people in the case of emergencies.

Posts in my neighborhood included restaurant recommendations, local gardening tips, nanny-share offers and a post asking for landscaping recommendations. In one post, I asked neighbors if they had tried a new Persian restaurant and I got seven helpful responses in just two hours.

My colleague in suburban Maryland found his new Nextdoor network had 46 people in just 10 days or so. Neighbors posted about recommended garage-door companies and how the development got its name.

Though Nextdoor is currently free of advertisements, the site plans a directory of local businesses that could link to user recommendations, like a Yellow Pages-Yelp mashup. These ads would be in a special section. Neighborhoods are natural social networks, and Nextdoor brings their local appeal to the online world.

Write to Katie at katie.boehret@wsj.com.

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