Websites aim to make neighborhoods more neighborly: Online options multiply for local discussions, connections

The Baltimore Sun
By Jamie Smith Hopkins

[Excerpted from the full article.]

People looking for an online neighborhood forum used to have few free choices beyond discussion sites such as Yahoo groups or email lists. Now options are popping up left and right. Besides Nextdoor, which launched nationally last fall, there's Home Elephant, My Virtual Neighbor, Neighborland, Yatown and Hey, Neighbor! — to name a few. Some are available in just a handful of cities so far.

"There's probably 20 startups in this space," said Michael Wood-Lewis, chief executive and co-founder of another site, Front Porch Forum. His company launched eons ago, in Internet terms — 2006...

Neighbors write in with questions, problems, ideas or needs — "Urgently seeking lost dog," for example — and the company compiles everything into an emailed newsletter that comes out as often as there's sufficient content.

In Burlington, Vt., 10,000 of the city's 16,000 households have signed up. In Westford, Vt., residents used Front Porch Forum to start a food pantry. And in tiny Moretown, one of the Vermont communities hit hard by Tropical Storm Irene last August, neighbors reported that having had the e-newsletter for a year beforehand turned out to be a big help.

"During that year, book clubs were formed, dog-walking groups got together, the school's PTA got stronger, more people were showing up for events," Wood-Lewis said. "So when a disaster hit, it wasn't a bunch of kind of vaguely familiar strangers who weren't sure how to reach each other. They were living in a community."

Atlanta-based Home Elephant, which launched last year, allows users in the same neighborhood to share news, chat and pass on alerts. People can sign in through Facebook and let the company suggest neighbors to "friend." Nearly 6,200 neighborhoods in more than 70 countries — including some areas in Maryland — are using it.

Chandler Powell, a Home Elephant co-founder, said... he feels like the David to Nextdoor's Goliath, because Nextdoor is a Silicon Valley startup with venture capital money. Home Elephant — so named because elephants are social creatures — has no marketing budget and is a nights-and-weekends labor of love at the moment, Powell said.

Nextdoor, with its Facebook-like feed for neighborhood conversations, has an immediately familiar look. It also has designated spots for recommendations, resources, photos and the like, along with a map showing where participants live. And users can receive neighborhood "urgent alerts" sent as text messages to their cellphones.

If there's no Nextdoor site in your neighborhood, you can start one — but only if you get nine other neighbors to sign up within three weeks. The company is trying to avoid ghost-town websites.

To join, you have to prove you live where you say you do — providing your home telephone number for a verification call, for instance. Or a vetted neighbor can vouch for you, which is how Nextdoor said most people end up joining.

Of the approximately 2,000 Nextdoor neighborhood sites, 20 are in Maryland. Seven more are in the pilot stage locally, waiting for enough sign-ups.

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