As regular readers of this column are painfully aware, I’m a student of how, and whether, social networks are being used by the normal people who make up my non-work life. You know who they are. The people who don’t know what Facebook Exchange or Promoted Trends are – and don’t hang on Mark Zuckerberg’s every word – but actually do real-world things, like go for a bike ride or weed the garden.
In other words, people who are very unlike you and me.
So I was curious when a guy who lives a few blocks away asked me in late March to join NextDoor, a social networking start-up that pledges to unite people online based on their geography, in private online communities. Of course, I signed up, not out of any urgency to get to know my neighbors better, but to study it. It has places to post items you’re giving away or selling; a classifieds section; a recommendations section primarily for local businesses; a crime and safety section; and so forth. It’s quite hyperlocal at a time when hyperlocal is all the rage. But my kneejerk reaction to all this – proven out in the near-term, by the lack of activity on NextDoor – is that for all its neat features, it just isn’t necessary.
We have it already – if in a somewhat haphazard fashion – on Facebook. In the town where I live (Pelham, N.Y.), our “NextDoor” is comprised of a series of intertwined Facebook groups. They include Pelham Crimestoppers, Friends of Pelham Schools, and the major domo of Pelham groups, Moms of Pelham, which is most commonly referred to by the abbreviation “MOPS.” (No, I don’t know what the “s” stands for.)
Even if MOPS is the clear leader, at almost 900 members and counting, each of these groups has played a major role in outreach and communication, depending on the news at the time. Crimestoppers was indispensable last year during the months when an armed gunman got in the nasty habit of holding up commuters walking back from the train at night; Friends of Pelham Schools served as the focal point last year when some parents were urging a rethink of the elementary school curriculum; and MOPS reached its apex during Hurricane Sandy, when people shared information on what gas stations had gas, and offered up their spare outlets and generators once power was restored.
MOPS is the best exhibit for why NextDoor just isn’t necessary. Scanning it quickly this morning, I found:
As a social media wonk, I love the diversity of this community, and the fact that it has become the go-to for just about anything local. As an aside, I should point out that it has incredible, and almost completely untapped, marketing opportunities for local businesses.
But what really makes it work isn’t unusual technology, or even the people who started it. Its true success is critical mass – and that’s where the NextDoors of the world fall flat. Even though Facebook is the one-size-fits-all of social networks, it is also surprisingly malleable. Put the whole word in there, and the whole world will find ways to split into groups; which means that if your personal whole world is on Facebook, that’s where you will establish your group.
Facebook, does, of course, have the technology for grouping to happen, but it’s not front-and-center, the way it is for something like NextDoor, or, Google+, which I thought, at one time, could take serious market share from Facebook because it was built from the ground up as a group-driven network.
I was wrong; instead, Facebook’s growth continued chugging along, passing one billion members, in a way that would seem to be the antithesis to grouping. Don’t let that big number fool you. Just as Manhattan seems to be one huge jumble of buildings and people, anyone who has lived there will tell you it’s actually a bunch of surprisingly small micro-neighborhoods. When there’s a dry cleaner only a block away, you wouldn’t think of going to the one four blocks away. And so it is with Facebook; if everyone’s there, why go to that other social network that’s a few clicks away