In Halloween 2017, a 3-year-old Chicago boy named Ryan missed his chance to go trick-or-treating because an illness landed him in the ICU. So his mom took to the neighborhood-based social network EveryBlock with a touching request: Would Ryan's neighbors be willing to re-create Halloween three days later? The yeses poured right it.
And when an elderly couple's basement flooded in Columbus, Ohio, in 2014, they posted urgent requests for assistance on Facebook, Twitter and the neighborhood-based site Nextdoor. But it was the Nextdoor connections who actually showed up.
"It was like living in an Amish community, and somebody had rung a bell, 'cause people just came out of the woodwork to help," the grateful husband told The Verge.
Stories like these explain the draw of locality-based online social networks. Nextdoor is by far the biggest of these networks, with private community sites operating in more than 168,000 neighborhoods across the United States (up from 40,000 in 2014), and thousands more in the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands. But there are also sites like Neighborland, E-Democracy and thousands of private neighborhood Facebook groups.
To join most of these neighborhood sites and groups, you need to prove that you actually live in the neighborhood or get permission from the forum admin, a step that ensures that topics and interactions stay local. You also have to use your real name, a buffer against the ugliness that online anonymity often provokes.
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Rosta Farzan, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh and researcher of online communities, says that when you ask people why they join community-based online social networks, they say that they miss the sense of real human connections with people in their neighborhoods.
"They also care about the local context in a way that they really do not care about issues that they're not in touch with on a daily basis," says Farzan, who has studied the types of interactions and content posted on neighborhood sites.
Unlike most messages posted on Facebook's public pages, or via Twitter and Instagram, which run the gamut from international news stories and cat videos to political rants, the main thing driving interactions on community-based sites is mobilization, explains Farzan.
Mobilization means that you need something and you want to leverage local resources to achieve it. That could be anything from recruiting neighbors for a group yard sale or getting a recommendation for a contractor to blocking the construction of a multi-story parking complex down the street.
And when neighborhood social networks are at their best, that's the benefit they provide. They rally the ingenuity and input and action of neighbors, the people with the most interest in making the community safe and successful.
But in practice, things aren't always so simple.
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Chris Englert, an author living in Denver, Colorado, started a neighborhood Facebook group when she moved to a new and fast-growing subdivision. What started out as a friendly and convenient way for new neighbors to connect and keep each other informed, inevitably devolved into endless name-calling arguments about dog poop. Despite a rule about never posting anything you wouldn't say to another person's face, neighbors became bullies.
A Philadelphia blogger went on a delightfully R-rated rant about her neighborhood Facebook group, where she says nine out of 10 posts are negative and nobody seems to care about actually doing something to change the status quo. "Reminder," she writes, "posting on the internet in private groups doesn't count as working hard to be a good member of your community."
Back in 2015, the East Bay Express in Oakland, California, uncovered a more insidious issue with neighborhood social networks: racial profiling. The report focused on Nextdoor's "Crime & Safety" section, which is intended to function as an online neighborhood watch. Unfortunately, people were using it to post "suspicious activity" that wouldn't have been nearly as suspicious if the subject wasn't black or wearing a hoodie.
To its credit, Nextdoor responded by completely revamping its crime and safety reporting system and creating a Racial Profiling Resource Center. Now, before a user can post a report, they're prompted to consider whether they'd report the same activity if it was done by somebody of a different race. And reports must include specific identifying characteristics of the suspect, not just race or sex.
"We are very proud of our work to address racial profiling on Nextdoor and have seen a tremendous response from our community," Kelsey Grady, director of global communications at Nextdoor, writes in an email. "We have seen a significant reduction in problematic posts and this number continues to decrease."
In her research, Farzan found that while safety is definitely one of the motivating factors for wanting to connect with your neighbors online, it's not anywhere near the top. And Nextdoor's own user data bears that out. According to numbers provided by Grady, the most popular section on Nextdoor is "Classifieds" (items for sale or giveaway), which makes up 32 percent of posts followed by "Recommendations" (24 percent). Here, posters ask for help finding the best restaurant, mechanic or plumber in their area to name just a few requests.