I had no idea a flasher plagued my Los Feliz neighborhood –– until I joined Nextdoor, a free social network website geared to individual neighborhoods.
I was, in fact, ignorant of considerable activity, all within blocks of me: a rash of car break-ins, stolen flowerpots, cat-killing coyotes, a murder suspect, an illegal house demolition and a lost French bulldog named Batgirl.
It's the latest hyper-local trend: connecting with your neighbors via smartphones and laptops. Since its launch in 2011, San Francisco-based Nextdoor has penetrated 1 in 5 U.S. neighborhoods, more than 36,000 neighborhoods in all 50 states.
Los Angeles County has 1,292 neighborhood sites; Orange County, 476.
Nextdoor, co-founded by Nirav Tolia, aims to help people keep up with what's going on around them and reverse a trend toward disengaged neighborhoods.
Members must give real first and last names as well as verified home addresses to join Nextdoor neighborhoods that on average comprise 750 households. Outsiders can't join or view the neighborhood news feed.
Nextdoor is designed to be a problem-solving site, its neighborhood news free of the frippery often found on Facebook, such as vacation, cat or kid photos. (Neighborhoods monitor their own sites.) Besides tracking crime and safety issues, neighbors can display classified ads and create groups geared to interests, exchange recommendations for baby sitters and dentists, display photos of lost pets, pose questions and post events.
Don Barfield joined Nextdoor after his Cheviot Hills neighborhood suffered nine burglaries in one day last June.
"The police caught the suspects, based on a photo a neighbor posted to Nextdoor," said Barfield, one of 765 members within 1,481 total households on Nextdoor's Cheviot Hills site.
Barfield uses Nextdoor's smartphone app and receives up to 15 pop-up posting notifications a day, some of them urgent alerts about suspicious activity. Notifications can be filtered to only such alerts, turned off or keyed to such popular categories as recommendations and crime and safety.
Authorized police and fire departments can post on Nextdoor and read replies but cannot view neighborhood news feeds. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has similar privileges: His recent post encouraged me to vote in Los Feliz council elections.
Some Cheviot Hills members post clips from home security cameras, which they said helps increase awareness and target thieves.
"This is all about immediacy," Barfield said. "Seeing it live."
After recent earthquakes, Barfield and neighbors used the site to coordinate check-ins on solitary elderly neighbors. During a six-hour power outage, a neighbor offered his freezer space, powered by a generator.
"Greg's now helping me to figure out the best generator to buy," Barfield said.
The potential to cultivate such Mayberry-style neighborliness is perhaps the genius of Nextdoor's confined communication model, which purports to "build stronger and safer neighborhoods." Barfield said trust and familiarization has been built among Cheviot Hills Nextdoor members.
Nextdoor bills website privacy as a benefit. I initially, however, viewed it as a risk. I adjusted public settings to reveal only my street name, and I scoured my profile page: no photo or contact information. My perhaps paranoid thought: Psychotic stalkers usually live down the block, not in the next county, right?
The company says Nextdoor goes to great lengths to ensure privacy, which includes password controls and search engine blocks. The service currently is ad-free.
Being a social network site, Nextdoor can at times grow chatty, Barfield said. Members can veer off topic, and a few are pugnacious.
I've witnessed similar activity in neighborhoods adjacent to my 133-member Los Feliz Knolls site. (Members can choose to share posts with nearby neighborhoods but cannot view those neighborhood news feeds or profiles.) A "mute" feature allows members to hide selected member posts.
"It can get a little bit ticky-tacky," Barfield said. "We had some issues in the beginning, but we keep it pretty clean."
Nextdoor's biggest payoff perhaps lies, yes, next door. I recently pocketed my smartphone to attend a breakfast mixer posted on my Los Feliz site.
I actually met several of my neighbors.
What U.S. adults say about their neighbors
- 72% knew more of their neighbors growing up than they do now.
- 92% consider themselves to be good neighbors.
- 56% agree that they interact very little with their neighbors.
- 36% say they don't approach neighbors because they don't want to seem nosy.
- 76% feel they could depend on a neighbor in the event of a natural disaster.
Source: Nextdoor Neighborhood Report