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Sonoma is a Nextdoor neighborhood

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Say you need a plumber. Or a roofer. Or a babysitter. Or maybe you’re missing your young black lab, last seen headed out for a walk on his own, without his collar.

Try Nextdoor.com, the neighborhood app that is literally sweeping the nation, one zip code at a time.

It started in 2011 in Silicon Valley, naturally, co-founded by “a group of entrepreneurs who had spent their entire career in building online communities, what we call user-generated content,” said Kelsey Grady, head of communications for Nextdoor.

Now it’s in more than 118,000 U.S. localities – including Sonoma and 16 “nearby neighborhoods” – and is beginning to show up in Europe as well.

The binding factor in Nextdoor is location, location, location: it’s not what job you have or income level or education or even interest, it’s where you live, period. You join by going to Nextdoor.com and entering your address and email; if you’re located in an existing Nextdoor neighborhood you are joined to that one, or if there is no Nextdoor where you live you can start one with a minimum of 10 neighbors.

“In 2010 when the idea came about, social networks had already become mainstream,” said Grady. “We had Facebook to connect with friends and family, we had LinkedIn for our business identity, we had Twitter to follow people and our interests. But technology wasn’t really doing a good job helping people in our local communities.

“So they saw the opportunities to take the best practices of social networking and apply it to the neighborhood,” said Grady.

The other logical analogy is Craigslist, with its bare-bones design and multiplicity of categories for everything from garage sales to roommates to real estate. But even though Craigslist postings can be tagged with a town, Next-door offers micro-community contact on a wide variety of topics, not just what’s for sale.

Consider the case of Bode, the black lab. At 5:46 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 23, someone posted they had found a young lab near the walking path off West MacArthur. About 15 minutes later another user posted that they lost their 7-month-old black lab, named Bode, in the same neighborhood.

In a little over an hour the dog was returned to its rightful owner – reported “found” even before he was reported “lost.” Said a thankful R.P. of Sonoma, “We found Bode, and will never, ever take his collar off again! Happy Thanksgiving, much to be grateful for tonight!”

A Nextdoor neighborhood is by design relatively small: At present, the Sonoma neighborhood has only 384 households, in an area that’s roughly the City of Sonoma from Broadway to the west. The East Side neighborhood encompasses most of the rest of the city limits, and then some, extending to Eighth Street East and beyond. There’s also smaller West Side Sonoma and The Plaza communities, in addition to a dozen more Nextdoor neighborhoods in the greater Sonoma area.

“We try keep them on average between 500 and 2,000 households,” said Grady. “When we started Nextdoor, we didn’t want to have the Nextdoor conversations to be too broad. We wanted to keep the conversation very intimate, to have what we call micro-communities.”

Micro-community contact is the best feature of Nextdoor, according to the many members who responded to an Index-Tribune post for comments on the service. “I like Nextdoor!” wrote T.C. from El Verano. “It give me a great feel for the grassroots stuff of our town, and makes it all seem a bit more small town and human.”

The security of Nextdoor is refreshing: once joined, everyone enters with a password, and the pages and posts are not indexed by search engines. You can view some information about your neighbors, whatever they choose to add to their profile – but no such profile information is available for members in contiguous neighborhoods, though in Sonoma one can post to the “nearby neighborhoods” audience of 2,111 members.

“It has been very useful to me – I have purchased items, found a dog sitter, learned about burglaries and other incidents in town that helped me take safety precautions,” wrote J.E. from Sonoma.

“Being retired from law enforcement, it is great to share knowledge of something going on like scams and other unlawful activity in our neighborhoods, traffic hazards, etc.,” wrote M.F.

“I too appreciate the heads-up when someone has experienced a crime,” wrote K.B. from the Creekside Village community. “And I found a wonderful termite inspection company just two days after joining nextdoor.com.”

While the open-ended community conversation is appreciated, the occasional downside is what Temelec’s D.R. called “the censorship and discussion stifling by neighborhood Leads!” The “Lead” is the one person monitoring the posts to see they adhere to the Community Guidelines, which Grady summarized as “be neighborly.” But especially in an election season, postings can become heated, and if a Lead so chooses he or she can shut down a thread or delete a post that may be perceived as violating the guidelines’ injunction “Don’t use Nextdoor as a soapbox.”

However wonderful the benefits of finding lost pets, roofers or crime alerts, the fact that Nextdoor is free raises the inevitable question: how can the business stay in business? “We’ve been very fortunate that we raised a lot of venture capitalist funding to get to this point. That’s carried us for five years,” said Grady. “But we really have been very open that we need to take this product and turn it into a viable business.”

At present they’re testing including ads in a member’s news feed – ironically, the one negative comment we received was from K.H. of the East Side who said, “I don’t like the ads.” Grady insists this is “just a test,” however, and says they’re also looking at “integrating local businesses into the platform in a bigger way,” which could provide a potential micro-revenue stream that might accumulate.

But for now, Nextdoor is filling the missing function of a community bulletin board, and doing it online. Soon, the City of Sonoma will join, using the power of the community app to reach out to its citizens.

“The City will be able to post information about items like road closure alerts, services, programs, public events and emergency notifications to Nextdoor (members) within the city,” said Sonoma City Clerk Rebekah Barr. “We are still in the process of building our page but hope to post our first post to all residents very soon,” she said, probably sometime in the next two weeks.

Can the world be far behind? Perhaps not: Next-door introduced itself in the UK in 2015 and is found in the Netherlands as well, a kind of trial run for Nextdoors in other languages. “In the Netherlands you can view the site either in English or in Dutch,” said Grady. “Hopefully as we expand Nextdoor into other countries, language will not be an issue.”

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.