Mike Isaac

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With New Mobile App, Nextdoor Unveils Its Take on the Neighborhood Watch

nextdoor_hand_newsfeed_tallThink of what you’re used to in a local neighborhood-watch group: Signs posted around a community with contact information, perhaps monthly meetings to discuss safety issues and concerns. Until now, it has been mostly low-tech stuff; something like “potlucks organized in church basements,” or maybe private Yahoo bulletin board groups.

Nextdoor, the private social network aimed at connecting people in neighborhoods, has a different take. The company unveiled its first mobile app on Thursday, essentially a way for residents of communities to stay in close, constant communication on issues specific to their homes, directly from their smartphones.

If you haven’t heard of it, yes, it’s another social network. And yes, it’s about strengthening ties to those you consider close, something like the original vision of the social app Path.

Unlike existing networks, however, Nextdoor isn’t about sharing things like what new band you listened to, or what type of omelet you had for breakfast. It prioritizes utility over recreation. So, in a typical Nextdoor stream, you’ll likely see posts about local garage sales, want ads for babysitters or rooms for rent. And each node of shared information is relegated strictly to the confines of your specifically drawn neighborhood or surrounding neighborhoods, so, in theory, you’re only in contact with people that would actually find this information useful. (Read Katie Boehret’s recent review of Nextdoor here.)

The new app is largely a port of all the website’s features over to a plain, unobtrusive mobile interface (every mobile social stream looks the same these days). You can post updates, welcome new neighbors and the like.

The biggest pitch, which accounts for roughly one-fifth of the user activity on Nextdoor’s network, is for local safety. Users have convened on Nextdoor to report local burglaries, muggings or suspicious activity in their area. Until now, users could only access the site via desktop or the mobile Web. But with the new app, Nextdoor’s pitch is that it will be far easier to keep tabs on your local goings-on, especially in terms of safety issues.

Especially compelling: You’re able to send and receive urgent alerts to your phone. So, if something bad is going down in your neighborhood, a Nextdoor user can send out an alarm that pings everyone in their district, whether they’re at home or not.

And, perhaps most importantly, you’re able to use the app to post photos on the fly.

By now, we’re well aware that photos do quite well when circulating through social networks — see Instagram, Twitter’s filters, Pinterest, et al. Nextdoor’s appeal here, though, again trumps utility over recreation. Snap a camera-phone shot of a stray cat who may belong to someone, a set of keys lost on the ground or a shady-looking dude peering in someone’s window, and your network of neighbors will be able to see it quickly.

“Think about having hundreds of cameras available at any given moment,” Nextdoor CEO Nirav Tolia told AllThingsD. “Everyone has a smartphone.”

That’s a cool enough thought for any local safety enthusiast — if not a little “Big Brother”-ish — and seems much more feasible than relying on patrols or radios. I wondered, though, if something like Nextdoor’s service would encourage locals to pull a Charles Bronson vigilante move on troublemakers, eschewing calling in the actual police.

Anything is possible. But Tolia said Nextdoor members weren’t doing that sort of thing thus far.

Ideally for the company, the app becomes something more than just another icon in your mobile tray — less an app than a tool, and a connection to what’s happening back at your home when you’re out in the world.

Of course, the perennial question remains: Can a smart take on an age-old social function convince people to sign up for yet another social network?

The app is in Apple’s App Store now. I guess we’ll soon find out.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus