The Nextdoor app is part of an elite group of things (Joe Wicks, Deliveroo, sourdough starters) that have had a “Good Lockdown”, rising from niche interest to national hobby. Although you perhaps wouldn’t know of the neighbourhood app’s success to scroll through its pages where users are still preoccupied posting about the horrors of bike thefts, lost cats and Covid vaccine scams: really, it’s a good thing we’re not allowed to leave the house as after spending a few minutes reading my local feed I wouldn’t want to.
Social network Nextdoor does the opposite of what Facebook et al do. It doesn’t want to connect the world– it looks much closer to home; wanting to link up people that live on each other’s doorsteps. In a line, Nextdoor is sort of like a local Facebook meets Whatsapp group set up by that well-meaning neighbour for the VE Day street party.
Born in 2011 in Silicon Valley, Nextdoor has since expanded to 11 countries, mostly in Europe and North America. It landed in the UK in 2016, and is now used by people in more than 270,000 “neighbourhoods”.
Users create a profile based on their road, and using that information, join their neighbourhood “group”. Users’ addresses are verified by their device’s GPS, as well as by entering their number, which confirms the postcode registered with their phone provider. In essence, when you’re hooked up to your local neighbourhood feed, you can be relatively sure that everybody else lives locally and won’t mind you posting on your feed about number 12’s bins.
I joined Nextdoor in the midst of the first lockdown last spring, shortly after the birth of my first baby– joining the thousands of other users who also signed up during the first wave. I was cloistered at home, my only face-to-face interaction with Amazon couriers delivering midnight purchases, and it went how it normally does: somebody on Twitter mentioned Nextdoor, and I was intrigued. I wasn’t one for the “appreciating what’s on my doorstep during lockdown” guff, but as a new parent there was something distinctly comforting about knowing real people were posting from the living rooms on the streets I’d pound on endless walks.
The Nextdoor digest from my corner of Southeast London isn’t that interesting, generally. There are posts about lost (and then found) cats, door-to-door scammers, long, personal introductions that read like dating profiles. I’m a lurker, popping in now and again to search for mentions of my road to see if anybody has complained about the noisy home renovation we’re in the middle of (thankfully not yet). It’s useful, too.
Last year, when there was a police cordon around the local pub, I searched Nextdoor and found out why (a murder a few streets over). I log on to work out bin collection day, or to search for baby items that are for sale. The most bombastic post on my feed of late, which warranted a push notification, was of a dumped, skeletal-looking snake on the local common surrounded by blue bin bags like some kind of pagan ritual.
That snake got me thinking: who is using Nextdoor? Why are we suddenly so interested in what our neighbours are up to? I’d gone from being so averse to making conversation that I’d cross the road to avoid them, to hungrily lapping up information about nicked cars. What happened?
Lockdowns have a lot to do with Nextdoor’s success. User numbers and engagement spiked in the weeks and months following March 2020– particularly in London. No surprises, really: when we’re all banished to our homes, of course we’re more interested in the minutiae of our neighbourhoods. A post about a dumped snake in January 2020 wouldn’t have bothered me; given I was at work I wouldn’t have seen it. But during lockdown, this excitement was happening just a few hundred metres down the road.
Generally, Nextdoor users are skewed towards cities. One in five Londoners are on Nextdoor, compared to one in seven across the UK as a whole, according to the app. In particular, one of the most active groups of users are “between the commons” in Southwest London, the affluent belt between Clapham and Wandsworth commons. But why cities?
Professor Stephanie J Morgan of the University of Aberdeen Business School, who has published papers on social media and the power of “strong ties”, says that often, “the bigger the crowd, the fewer people you want to talk to”. That’s certainly true of cities, which are sprawling and typically isolating, sucking people in for work, away from their friends and families. And in London’s case, well, have you ever seen anybody willingly engage somebody else on the Tube?
It was seen as almost gauche to actually talk to our neighbours – we’d much rather keep them at arm’s length behind a screen. Until lockdown forced us to talk to each other, because there was no other option. Whereas in rural communities, Professor Morgan says, with fewer people, generally, there’s more chance to make a meaningful connection.
Not to say Nextdoor isn’t used in villages, though. A friend of mine, Sophia, who has just moved to a small village in Yorkshire from Leeds with her husband and baby daughter, had never heard of Nextdoor until a flyer asking her to join was posted through her door. She has since found the app invaluable for making new connections within the parameters of lockdown restrictions. “I posted a message introducing myself, saying my young family and I had just moved, and several people got in touch to ask if I wanted to go for a walk,” she told me.
Where real-life interaction fades, Nextdoor, like many social networks, has helped to plug the gap. But unlike speaking to friends virtually over Whatsapp or Facebook (undoubtedly helpful for fostering a sense of belonging), Nextdoor connects people in geographically identical situations, which then translates to real, on-the-ground help.
Nextdoor cannily capitalised on the “Blitz spirit” of the first lockdown, and set up a “help map”, where users could signal that they were available to help local households if they couldn’t get out for food or medicine. It took off. “Now more than ever, in the midst of this pandemic, we see the power neighbourhoods have when we plug into them,” Sarah Friar, CEO of Nextdoor, tells The Independent. “Communities across the UK have grown to rely on the people and places nearby, creating the community they want by getting involved in the very place where they can make a difference: the neighbourhood.”
Like Sharon, from Hove, who used Nextdoor to reach out to the vulnerable in her community. Through the group, Sharon met 92-year-old war veteran Tom, who was suffering from terminal cancer and isolated following the death of his daughter. Sharon asked the Nextdoor group to send Tom a letter or a card to show him that he wasn’t alone. Like another high-profile war veteran of the same name, Tom received a flurry of cards, hot meals and even presents. He died in December, surrounded by cards and presents from his neighbours.
Or Louise, a seamstress and costume designer from Essex, who posted on Nextdoor to ask if anybody wanted a face mask in return for an NHS donation: she’s since made over 200 masks for her community. And Alberto Salas, from London, who arrived in London last year to teach Spanish at Greenwich University. With time on his hands thanks to Covid, he offered to give Spanish lessons to his neighbours via Nextdoor – including to one elderly woman who couldn’t communicate with her Colombian granddaughter.
Dr Evangelos Ntontis, a lecturer in social psychology for Canterbury Christ Church university and a member of The British Psychological Society’s Social Psychology Section, says that it’s easy to feel a closeness with others when we’re all affected by the same threat – particularly when that threat is geographical, like flooding or a Covid outbreak. The shared experiences we have with our neighbours, like clapping for the NHS, all help develop that bond.
“People also develop a sense of place identity, a psychological sense of emotional connection to the places they occupy, like their home; their village or town; particular areas of significance,” says Ntontis, adding that apps like Nextdoor are useful now not because they bring people together, but because they’re “tied to specific places, which are parts of wider areas in close proximity to one another”.
“These apps cover both psychological needs (belonging, security, being heard) as well as practical needs (receiving support, being able to offer support, keeping updated with a rapidly changing situation) in relation to very specific geographical areas.
“We cannot easily separate the psychological from the geographical – often these two go together and we can feel psychologically connected to specific geographical areas and the people that reside in them in ways that cannot be covered by different types of networks.”
What Nextdoor is trying to replicate is what Stanford University sociologist Mark Granovetter called “weak ties”. In his 1973 paper, The Strength of Weak Ties, Granovetter argued that the ‘loose’ connections we have, outside of our ‘strong’ network of family and friends, can be extremely useful. These ‘weak’ ties could be neighbours, parents at the school gates, the barista who makes your morning cappuccino – often you don’t even realise you have them. Evidence shows that the more you have, the more you’re likely to be a good citizen.
“Research indicates that weak ties in neighbourhoods foster positive cohesion to the broader community,” says Professor Morgan. “During Covid you are more likely to feel you are ‘in it together’ and the weak ties indicate a link to ‘collective public will’ instead of pure individualistic interests. Some cohesion amongst residents has been shown to be a key ingredient of healthy communities.”
Professor Morgan adds: “Increasing these weak ties may be useful in a different way once Covid lockdown has ended – there is a lot of evidence that weak ties are the ones who will help us to get jobs – something a lot of people may be needing. The issues created by Covid can often only be helped by people nearby – social media with people miles away is not going to help if you run out of sugar or have a nasty fall on the doorstep. Therefore suddenly neighbours are more important than before.”
Nextdoor dreams of a “kinder world”, where we develop more local social capital with our neighbours, which, despite the warm and fuzzy community spirit, does seem slightly lofty for an app that seems to deal heavily with lost cats and requests for plumbers. And when we’re all freed from our local postcodes when lockdown eases next month, will we still place the same rose tint on our neighbourhoods and the people in them? Time will tell.