There’s no shortage of online social connectivity, with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat all offering means by which Kiwis can stay in touch with each other. Interestingly, while each of these tools has been designed to make it easier for people to stay in touch, they are consistently criticised for causing a disconnect between people in the real world. And for good reason. Studies out of the US show that over the last decade show that fewer and fewer Americans are talking to their neighbours, while in the UK a similar study found that 51 percent of respondents didn’t even know the names of those living right next door to them.
This social disconnect is part of the reason why Casey Eden saw potential in launching Neighbourly three years ago.
Since then, over 470,000 and over 21,000 businesses have signed up in a bid to connect with each other. And beyond its membership numbers, in May, the platform recorded a monthly audience of 810,000—up 45 percent on last year—according to Nielsen.
Eden describes the growth as slow and steady, but it’s not a bad thing as those who are signing up are staying.
“It’s been three years now and it’s been a steady, month-by-month process and I guess the good think about that progress is that we’re keeping them,” he says.
“It’s not that hard for a website to go and get members but keeping them is the hard thing.”
And only three years in, Eden says there’s still a way for Neighbourly to go but his learnings to date have helped him to determine what that direction will be.
“I don’t think you mature as a website for somewhere between five and ten years, so we do need to continue to offer great solutions in the towns where we’re going well. And we’ve got to work harder in some of the smaller towns to make sure that the model suits them. I think one size fits all is not the path to take.”
He gives the example of farming communities, in which people know their neighbours who can be hundreds of meters down the road, whereas in some city apartments, there are people who don’t know their neighbours on the other side of the wall.
But not only is the Neighbourly team learning about New Zealand communities, its members are learning how to use Neighbourly for their own needs.
Eden looks back to the first few years of Facebook, saying during that time users wouldn’t have known how they were going to get involved but over time those reasons have become more and more impressive so everyone’s jumping on.
The same goes for Neighbourly and For Eden, who has a young child, he’s seen the value in the website’s ability to connect mothers who might be lonely or need advice, while other members are using it to buy and sell, recommend businesses, set up groups and promote local jobs.
However, no matter how it’s used on a day-to-day basis when it comes to crime prevention, community safety and emergency support, its full potential for all members becomes clear.
Members can arrange a community crime watch meeting to encourage people to get to know each other face to face and when they see suspicious activity or safety issues in their community, they can report it to neighbours through the websites. For more serious or urgent issues, an alert can be sent via text to those who have registered their numbers.
Urgent alerts can also be used during emergencies and while Neighbourly is too young to have seen the Christchurch earthquake in 2011, last year’s Kaikoura earthquake saw its services become a vital part of how some of those affected got through.
Eden says when the quake hit, many took advantage of the urgent alerts to offer up different forms of assistance as well as places to stay for those forced out of their homes.
“It’s just one of those times where the support network is just down your street,” he says.
“The authorities will get to you, but if you’re someone who’s been mildly affected, chances are you’re going to have to rely on those around you.”
In the aftermath of the main event, Neighbourly was also one of the channels used by first responders and councils to distribute information.
Helping to raise Neighbourly’s profile is Fairfax, which bought a 22.5 percent stake in the site just months after its launch and since increased that to 70 percent. For Neighbourly, it means advertising in front of Fairfax’s New Zealand-wide audience and for Fairfax, it means another distribution channel for its journalists.
Eden says when it comes to online platforms for community news, there aren’t many ways for it to get out there and Neighbourly’s online communities provide an audience. There are also areas of Neighbourly that don’t require a membership to visit and those sections are a home to content from Fairfax’s community newspapers, like the death notices, which Eden says are important but don’t otherwise have a home outside of the paper.
But possibly more important for journalists, is the ability to create content by using Neighbourly as a source of news. Eden says journalists are able to see issues being discussed in their region and hear people’s thoughts with a poll, a survey or by asking for feedback.
“The beautiful thing with Neighbourly is you can really isolate those to specific areas of interest,” Eden says.
“You can actually say: ‘People in St Heliers, what do you think about this?’”
And when the story is published, it can be shared on Neighbourly to get further feedback and follow-up stories, creating a cycle.
Looking into the future, Eden would like to see all those conversations between communities and journalists be used to create some change.
“I think sometimes the journalist’s role should actually be to not to just broadcast stories but to facilitate change,” he says, adding that Neighbourly is the perfect platform to bring people together, with already 238 neighbourhoods having over 500 members.