Using social networks to connect with neighbors and local services has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Facebook — with 2.7 billion users globally — is now looking at how it can tap into that in a more direct way. In the same week that it was reported that Nextdoor is reportedly gearing up to go public, Facebook has started to test a Nextdoor clone, Neighborhoods, which suggests Facebook-generated Neighborhood groups (with a capital N, more on that below) local to you to join to connect with people, activities and things being sold in the area.
“More than ever, people are using Facebook to participate in their local communities. To help make it easier to do this, we are rolling out a limited test of Neighborhoods, a dedicated space within Facebook for people to connect with their neighbors,” said a spokesperson in a written statement provided to TechCrunch.
Facebook said that Neighborhoods currently is live only in Calgary, Canada, where it is being tested before getting rolled out more broadly.
The feature — which appears in the Menu of the main Facebook app, alongside tiles for Marketplace, Groups, Friends, Pages, Events and the rest — was first seen widely via a post on Twitter from social media strategy guy Matt Navarra, who in turn had been tipped off by a social media strategist from Calgary, Leon Grigg from Grigg Digital. (Jane Manchun Wong, a developer and app sleuth, also saw an early build as far back as May.)
From Grigg’s public screenshots, it appears that Neighborhood groups — that is, local groups that are part of this new Neighborhood feature — are like those on Nextdoor, based on actual geographical areas on a map.
From the looks of it, these Neighborhood groups appear to be triggered to “open” once there are enough people in the area to have joined, just like on Nextdoor. But unlike those on Nextdoor, and unlike Facebook groups, they are not created, built and run by admins, nor do they have “Community Ambassadors” (Nextdoor’s term). They are instead generated by Facebook itself.
Facebook said it will also suggest other local groups, but it tells me that it has not yet decided if it will include other local Groups that already exist on the platform, or just other Neighborhood groups. So there is still a question about what this would mean for all those neighborhood Groups (small n) were Facebook’s new feature to launch more widely.
For now, Neighborhood groups require more permissions from you the user, and seem to be more presented rather than something you would organically find as you might a Group today.
Screenshots from Grigg’s Facebook post also show that after you click on Neighborhoods, you are asked to confirm your location to Facebook (sharing your location data being also a way to provide more data points for the company to profile you for advertising and marketing purposes).
It then suggests a Neighborhood to you to join, and also provides a list of other Neighborhood groups that are nearby, plus some ground rules for good behavior. If a Neighborhood isn’t live yet because not enough people have joined, you can invite more people to join it.
Facebook notes that when you post in a Neighborhood group, people see your specific Neighborhood profile and your posts there, but it doesn’t automatically mean they see your normal Facebook profile. You can change what gets seen in privacy settings.
Facebook then takes you through some suggested posts that you might make for other Neighborhoods, or to populate yours once it is live. (Examples in the screenshots include sharing pictures of carved pumpkins, and offering tips on local places.)
Tapping into an already-huge feature: Groups
Through Neighborhoods, Facebook is doubling down on one of the most popular ways that the social network is already being used — and by an increasing number of people, one of the only ways that it’s being used these days — via Groups, which bypass your own social graph and connect you with other kinds of communities.
Earlier this month, during Facebook’s Communities Summit, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that there were more than 1.8 billion people engaging with Groups at least once a month on the social network, with more than 70 million group admins and moderators putting in unpaid hours to manage them (hello, fellow mods and admins).
“We’re going to make communities as central to the FB experience as friends and family,” Zuckerberg said back in 2019, and repeated again this month.
As Sarah pointed out back in 2014, when Groups had a mere 500 million users and communities was not at the core of Facebook’s mission statement, Facebook Groups sometimes feels like you’re on a whole different social network, where you are establishing connections with people outside of your personal “social graph” of friends, family and colleagues, and are more broadly connecting with specific communities, whether they are based on where you live or a specific interest.
That role has only grown in 2020, with many people turning to local groups during the COVID-19 global health pandemic to connect with local resources, mutual aid groups and simply to check in with each other.
Or, to complain: my own local group that I help admin did all of the above, but also was a place for people to virtually hand-wring about the crowded (and illegal) festival atmosphere in the local park, and then to galvanise feedback and support, which helped us as a community present the problem to our local councillors to get the situation (sort of, finally) resolved.
A lot of Groups use is at its best organic, not prompted or productized by Facebook, so with Neighborhoods, it seems the company is now exploring ways to more proactively, inorganically dig into that role.
That may not be a surprise. On one side, consider how many people have decided to stop sharing as much on Facebook as before, and the role that Facebook has been playing in the great misinformation-disguised-as-news heist of the century. On the other, consider how Facebook has been building out its Marketplace and providing more resources for local businesses to spur them to advertise. Building an anchor for all that with Neighborhoods makes complete commercial sense.
The timing of the feature is also notable for another reason. While Facebook is vast in size and scope compared to Nextdoor, the latter has found a kind of groove in recent times. The public swing toward looking for more local resources online has meant that Nextdoor, fighting its own bad reputation as a place where people go to confirm their worst fears, make racist comments in the name of public service, and look for lost pets, has found a second life.
Things like building neighborhood assistance programs and taking a public stand on social issues has helped Nextdoor reinvent itself as the good guy. Now covering some 268,000 neighborhoods, the company is riding that wave and reportedly eyeing a public listing via SPAC at a $4 billion – $5 billion valuation.
Yes, maybe that’s just a button compared to the full suit that is Facebook. But given that Facebook already has so many of the threads of a Nextdoor-type product already there on its platform, it’s a no-brainer that it would try to knit them together.
Updated with comment from Facebook on Groups