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Apps bringing Twin Cities neighbors together, mostly

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Madeleine Pfeiffer, 3, and her father, Andrew Bernhardt, create a path.
Madeleine Pfeiffer, 3, and her father, Andrew Bernhardt, create a path at their home in St. Paul using rocks Bernhardt found from a neighbor — reporter Martin Moylan — via NextDoor.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

Social media can connect us with people and services around the globe. But can it help get rid of a ton of limestone rock?

That was the question. It didn't take long to get an answer. 

The stone, remnants of an old retaining wall, had been piled up against the side of my St. Paul house for about two years. I put a notice on Nextdoor.com, offering the rocks for free to anyone willing to haul them away. Within about 10 minutes, my yippy schnoodle alerted me that someone was outside my front porch. 

Next Door
Next Door, a neighborhood-based social media app, is a mix of classifieds, crime notices, recommendations and local information.
MPR News

It was an easy exercise on the power of Facebook, Nextdoor and other sites in knitting together neighborhood residents. Nextdoor is winning fans in Minnesota and across the country with its focus on organizing people by neighborhoods. The company claims more than 3,000 neighborhood sites are up in Minnesota. By year's end, Nextdoor expects to have about half the households in the Twin Cities signed up.

Andrew Burnhardt, who lives about five blocks away from my home, has the Nextdoor app on his phone and came by for the stone as soon as he saw my post. He said he's a big Nextdoor fan. The app helps him find free plants and landscaping materials and keeps him abreast of goings-on in the neighborhood. "A lot of people talk about looking for new babysitters or nannies," he said. "We have some young kids. We've used Nextdoor to connect with other families."

But Burnhardt says there's a tendency for people to post bad news, not their good news. "I guess it's just human nature," he said. "People talk about things that get them all worked up." That includes wandering cats, stolen bikes and burglaries. 

Nextdoor says crime accounts for only about a sixth of the conversations on its sites. There's far more talk about free stuff or searches for good local plumbers or auto mechanics. 

In north Minneapolis, Richelle Royals says her neighborhood's Nextdoor site can get whiny, but she still relies on it.

"It's a good place to network with neighbors when you're looking for services and you just need to know what's going on," she said.

People who want to connect by Facebook can adapt the group function to serve neighborhoods. But Nextdoor was built specifically for neighborhoods. Pet and lost-and-found directories and crime reports are part of the standard template. 

"Anything that we think will build that stronger community, we're looking to add it," said Steve Wymer, Nextdoor's vice president for communications and policy.

But Nextdoor, like Facebook, is a business first and foremost. A lot of people see potential for it to make big bucks following Facebook's business model — creating a huge audience for advertisers. The company has attracted a lot of venture capital and has been valued at about $1 billion. 

"We are a for-profit entity although we are still in startup mode," said Wymer. "We have begun to test some monetization in the form of sponsored posts, brands that that want to connect with members. They tend to be home-based services. Our goal is to create advertising that feels helpful."

If Nextdoor is really successful, the company will likely get swallowed up, said Ali Mogharabi, an analyst with investment research firm Morningstar.

"If they (Nextdoor) perform pretty well, then they could actually become an acquisition target," he said. "I think, in the long run they'll have a tough time to compete effectively against other players such as Facebook."

That would be especially true if Facebook launches a service that mimics Nextdoor.

For now, the neighborhood groups on Facebook have a different feel. Their focus, tone and rules tend to be dictated by the groups' founders.

Jeff Skrenes lives in the Jordan neighborhood in Minneapolis. He founded the North Talk Facebook group in part to try to bring black and white neighbors together for serious discussions.

"The make-up of the community is rather mixed," he said. "But yet how do you get a dialogue going?  I just threw that out there and someone said, 'You should create a Facebook page about it.'"

So he did. But before long, he found North Talk wasn't satisfying some neighbors and other Facebook groups for the neighborhood emerged. Skrenes says Facebook groups tend to have more substantive discussions than what occurs on Nextdoor.

The Kenwood Nextdoor page recently had a fiery discussion after a resident of the Minneapolis neighborhood said he felt like shooting someone he saw breaking into cars. He complained he couldn't get a clear shot.

Courtney Kiernat was one of the first people on Nextdoor to push back. 

"I thought, 'My gosh. This has to be a joke,'" she recalled. "It wasn't a joke. I tried to be respectful, encourage that person to call 911."

Kiernat says people on Nextdoor tend to police each other if someone goes off on rant. And she says people generally behave because they use their real names and live nearby. 

Kiernat says she feels at home with Nextdoor. She says it's more intimate, connected and real than than Facebook. 

"It feels a bit closer to home, versus like a Facebook which is just huge," she said. "And even though there may be a page for neighborhood, sometimes it can be harder to navigate."

But whatever platform neighbors choose, they often find it brings them together to some degree, not to mention lots of opportunities to pick or get rid of stuff for free.