Websites aim to make neighborhoods more neighborly

In the Anne Arundel community of Berrywood, neighbors talk to each other daily. Could you recommend a plumber? Anyone want my piano? Hey, we have a hobby in common!

More and more, the conversations take place online.

A quarter of Berrywood households belong to a private social network for the neighborhood created by Nextdoor, a California startup that's gaining a toehold in Maryland.

Nextdoor and a variety of competing new sites aim to create virtual communities for people within walking distance of each other. It's a group that would seem to need no cyberspace help — except that many neighborhoods aren't especially neighborly these days. Fewer than half of Americans can name most of the people who live near them, according to a Pew Research Center poll released in 2010. Twenty-eight percent didn't know any of their neighbors' names.

"This is about taking real-world relationships and strengthening them," Nextdoor CEO Nirav Tolia said. "More than anything, we want to bring back a sense of community to the neighborhood."

Berrywood, in Severna Park, is pretty closely knit. But even here, resident Rich Murnane said, neighbors are finding online connections useful — and learning things about each other. When Murnane noted one of his interests on his Nextdoor Berrywood profile, he said, "somebody actually reached out to me, saying: 'Oh, I didn't know you collect trains. I do, too.'"

"It's not going to replace walking down the street and talking to people, but it's one piece in the puzzle," said Murnane, a database systems designer. "It's a nice thing to have."

People looking for an online neighborhood forum used to have few free choices beyond discussion sites such as Yahoo groups or email lists. Now options are popping up left and right. Besides Nextdoor, which launched nationally last fall, there's Home Elephant, My Virtual Neighbor, Neighborland, Yatown and Hey, Neighbor! — to name a few. Some are available in just a handful of cities so far.

"There's probably 20 startups in this space," said Michael Wood-Lewis, chief executive and co-founder of another site, Front Porch Forum. His company launched eons ago, in Internet terms — 2006.

Front Porch Forum, used largely in Vermont, isn't looking to go national fast, though Wood-Lewis says he could see expanding to Maryland at some point. He calls the company a mission-driven for-profit because he's constantly hearing from users that their communities became stronger after they joined.

Neighbors write in with questions, problems, ideas or needs — "Urgently seeking lost dog," for example — and the company compiles everything into an emailed newsletter that comes out as often as there's sufficient content.

In Burlington, Vt., 10,000 of the city's 16,000 households have signed up. In Westford, Vt., residents used Front Porch Forum to start a food pantry. And in tiny Moretown, one of the Vermont communities hit hard by Tropical Storm Irene last August, neighbors reported that having had the e-newsletter for a year beforehand turned out to be a big help.

"During that year, book clubs were formed, dog-walking groups got together, the school's PTA got stronger, more people were showing up for events," Wood-Lewis said. "So when a disaster hit, it wasn't a bunch of kind of vaguely familiar strangers who weren't sure how to reach each other. They were living in a community."

Atlanta-based Home Elephant, which launched last year, allows users in the same neighborhood to share news, chat and pass on alerts. People can sign in through Facebook and let the company suggest neighbors to "friend." Nearly 6,200 neighborhoods in more than 70 countries — including some areas in Maryland — are using it.

Chandler Powell, a Home Elephant co-founder, said a string of crimes and "some unfortunate events" in his Atlanta neighborhood made him realize he knew hardly any of his neighbors. That led him and several Web-savvy friends to start the firm.

Powell said he feels like the David to Nextdoor's Goliath, because Nextdoor is a Silicon Valley startup with venture capital money. Home Elephant — so named because elephants are social creatures — has no marketing budget and is a nights-and-weekends labor of love at the moment, Powell said.

Nextdoor, with its Facebook-like feed for neighborhood conversations, has an immediately familiar look. It also has designated spots for recommendations, resources, photos and the like, along with a map showing where participants live. And users can receive neighborhood "urgent alerts" sent as text messages to their cellphones.

If there's no Nextdoor site in your neighborhood, you can start one — but only if you get nine other neighbors to sign up within three weeks. The company is trying to avoid ghost-town websites.

To join, you have to prove you live where you say you do — providing your home telephone number for a verification call, for instance. Or a vetted neighbor can vouch for you, which is how Nextdoor said most people end up joining.

Of the approximately 2,000 Nextdoor neighborhood sites, 20 are in Maryland. Seven more are in the pilot stage locally, waiting for enough sign-ups.

The company says it eventually will look for ways to generate revenue — probably by connecting neighbors with local businesses — but is focusing for now on helping users solve daily problems.

"Probably hundreds of baby sitters are found every day, lost pets are found, crimes are reported," said Tolia, who co-founded online review site Epinions before launching Nextdoor. "In Woodside, Calif., there was a woman whose son was diagnosed with meningitis, and she got the word out through Nextdoor."

Rohit Bhargava, a marketing expert whose book "Likeonomics" is due out in May, said there does seem to be a neighborhood gap unfilled by Facebook and other social-network behemoths. He thinks the trick for a would-be contender is to reach neighborhood "influencers" — the people who can mean the difference between success and failure for an enterprise that boils down to word of mouth.

Then there's the challenge of persuading people used to not knowing their neighbors that they ought to.

"If you asked people directly, 'Would you like to know and have more connections with [your] immediate neighbors,' there are probably a lot of people who would say, 'You know, I don't really care about that,'" said Bhargava, who teaches marketing at Georgetown University. "But if they actually experienced having better connections with their neighbors … I think most people would get value out of that."