Nextdoor launches to bring your real neighborhood online

How well do you know your neighbors? If you’re like most people these days, probably not very well. A recent study from Pew Research indicates that more than half of all Americans today know only some of their neighbors by name — and 28 percent say they know none of their neighbors’ names.

As great as the virtual world can be, it’s still important to know the people who surround you in the physical world  — whether you need to find a good babysitter, borrow a cup of sugar, or plan what to do in the event of a major natural disaster.

That’s where Menlo Park, Calif.-based startup Nextdoor comes in. Founded by tech industry veteran Nirav Tolia (of Epinions and fame), Nextdoor lets neighbors within certain regions create private websites where they can exchange local information and events while getting to know each other better. Nextdoor was founded in the fall of 2010 and is officially launching to the public Wednesday.

Inspired by Facebook’s early days

Nextdoor's main page (click to enlarge)

To be a member of Nextdoor, you must register with your real name and real physical address. Nextdoor verifies members addresses in one of four ways: Sending a postcard to the address with a unique code, making a phone call to a listed number at that address, linking the person to a billing address from a credit card they provide, or by providing an invitation from a previously verified neighbor.

“We were inspired by the early days of Facebook; when they launched, they required university-specific email addresses to allow people to access university-specific networks within Facebook. That creates a little friction up front but ultimately it allows people to feel more comfortable,” Tolia said.

Each Nextdoor network’s size is established by the first person to add the region to the site — Nextdoor provides a drawing tool that allows users to define the boundaries of their neighborhoods on top of a Google map. Boundaries can be changed later as the group evolves. The typical Nextdoor network would comprise between 50 to 2,000 households, depending on the geographic region and its density.

Social network meets public utility

Nextdoor region map (click to enlarge)

Why the need for Nextdoor, in a world where it seems like so many different social networks already exist? The company says it’s because neighbors fill a distinct role in our lives: We don’t necessarily want to be Facebook friends with them or add them to a Google+ Circle; we probably don’t know their email addresses, or even their names, to initiate such a relationship.

That’s why in addition to letting people join the site via email, Nextdoor lets users print semi-custom flyers inviting neighbors to join the site, and it will also send personalized postcards to their neighbors for them.

Over the past year, Nextdoor has been testing its site in a pilot program in over 175 neighborhoods across 26 states — from the suburbs of Memphis, Tennessee to tech-savvy bedroom communities in the heart of Silicon Valley. Tolia says Nextdoor has generally been enthusiastically adopted in all different types of places. “It’s the same kind of pattern we’re seeing in almost every neighborhood. In a very short period of time, it becomes a public utility for the neighborhood.”

But will it really take off?

Nextdoor is backed with an undisclosed amount of funding from Benchmark Capital and Shasta Ventures; its board of directors includes Rich Barton, the chairman and co-founder of real estate website Zillow(s Z). The company currently has 22 employees. Nextdoor currently does not make money; it plans to eventually generate revenue by allowing local merchants to advertise their goods and services on the site.

When I was given a demo of Nextdoor, I immediately recognized its potential value — it’s that very rare website that I could envision my extended family in the Midwest using, just as well as I could imagine using it myself. It’s a mix of a crazy idea (another social network?) with one of the oldest, most practical ideas around (love thy neighbor, of course.) And like any social network, it’s only as good as the people who are on it. Only time can tell if Nextdoor will take off, but it certainly seems worth a try — and what better time than now.

Here’s a video intro to Nextdoor: