Startups Compete to Connect Neighbors — But Beware the ‘Empty Room’

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A number of new hyperlocal apps have popped up recently to facilitate neighbors’ conversations with one other. NextDoor just raised an additional $18.6 million for the purpose of getting neighbors acquainted; meanwhile, mobile apps like Sonar and Banjo aggregate your social network friends and display their whereabouts relative to you on a map. And the new service City Chatter is like a version of Sonar that focuses on finding and interacting with people near you in your community — a variant beyond simple friend interaction.

I see three major hurdles to the adoption of these localized services:

1) Local networks require critical mass. Startups immediately face an “empty room” problem as they move away from early adopter hubs like San Francisco and New York City.

2) Local networks require ringleaders to advance conversations. It’s tough to make a local conversation compelling unless it is topical, like a neighborhood crime wave or some public problem. And frankly most participants will always be silent.

3) People may be wary of joining an online neighborhood network. “Neighbor chat” requires a new kind of societal trust that by metaphor, will create glass houses of its participants. The uneasiness is in laying bare your daily life, your views and your whereabouts to a community of strangers who can potentially stalk you due to their physical proximity.

Paradoxically, locals are already participating in online forums and services en masse with their communities — just not yet in these hyperlocal services. All they need is a good reason to interact locally. It’s happening in Yelp, where restaurant and business reviews serve as relevant, actionable content that can become the foundation for the online local community infrastructure. Active city bulletin boards on Craigslist, Facebook and Yelp all point to a demand to connect locally. Local networks will evolve on collaborative consumption services like GetAround when people start sharing cars and other belongings with their neighbors. It’s simply a matter of opening up the individual silo networks of these hyperlocal services; the people bartering cars on GetAround don’t interact with those leaving Yelp reviews, and they should.

On NextDoor, the other 14 people in my NextDoor neighborhood only know me by my dry template bio and a few messages I sent out to the empty room. If NextDoor were able to allow me and others to aggregate and display social graph data, I may discover that the Yelp reviewer or Tweeter I follow might live a few doors down. The social graph needs to be exposed so neighbors can see these connections and feel safe with the idea that their personal transparency can extend to the sidewalk level This evolving trend to greater personal transparency will eventually make NextDoor and its counterparts vital hyperlocal community destinations.

Patrick Kitano is founding Principal of Brand into Media, a strategy group for social brand management solutions, and administrator of the Breaking News Network, a national hyperlocal network devoted to community service. He is the author of Media Transparent, and contributor to Social Media Today, Daily Deal Media, and The Customer Collective. He is reachable via Twitter @pkitano and email [email protected].