By Michael Vollmann
It has never been easier to stay in touch with family, friends and colleagues, wherever they live. Yet most of us still lack a digital infrastructure for connecting with the people living next door. Despite their success in some developed countries, hyperlocal social networks are not a fixture of most local communities. nebenan.de, Germany’s first hyperlocal communication platform, now hosts 5,000 active communities that bring neighbours together both online and offline. nebenan.de could offer a model for communities in developing countries seeking to leverage the power of hyperlocal communication to increase social capital.
It has never been easier to stay in touch with family, friends, and colleagues, wherever they live, thanks to today’s social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Yet most of us still lack a digital infrastructure for connecting with one of the most important spheres in our social lives: our neighbourhood. Even in this hyperconnected age, many urban residents do not have an easy way to communicate digitally with others living on their block. To address this gap in Germany, my colleagues and I founded nebenan.de, the country’s first hyperlocal communication platform, which now hosts 5,000 active communities that bring neighbours together. nebednan.de could offer a model for other communities, particularly in developing countries, seeking to leverage the power of hyperlocal communication to increase social capital.
What is nebenan.de and how does it work?
Two years ago, we launched nebenan.de to provide every neighbourhood in Germany with a closed and private social media platform that only neighbours can access. To ensure that the online community mirrors the real neighbourhood, prospective members must verify their addresses and sign in with their real name.
To add new neighbourhoods to the platform, nebenan.de works with local leaders. Most online neighbourhoods comprise 3,000-5,000 households within walking distance of each other. The first 10 neighbours who register within this area define the name and geographic area. After the initiators recruit ten more residents to sign up and verify their residences, the “doors” to the neighbourhood are virtually opened and nebenan.de helps the local leaders market the online community.
By allowing the communities to grow organically, nebenan.de overcomes the “empty room problem.” The platform’s functions are similar to those provided by the big international social networks (posts, private messages, events, groups, etc.). But nebenan.de doesn’t use any algorithms to filter or prioritise content; instead, it empowers the users to determine what’s important as the most current posts (and reactions) are always listed chronologically. So the most lively discussions and events of most interest rank above other content deemed less important by the users.
The impact of nebenan.de
Within two years’ time, nebenan.de hosted more than 5,000 vibrant neighbourhood networks across the country, from Berlin to the smallest village. When signing up, every new participant states what they are willing to share with their neighbours, such as lending a drilling machine, or teaching German to new arrivals. Through this, the platform crowd-sources neighbourhood resources. Unlike other social networks, nebenan.de is not plagued by egocentric self-presentation, narcissism, and anonymous populism but instead fosters a culture of respect, community, and solidarity. No one hides behind fake names, and the limited reach hinders spam and scams. There are three simple rules that frame the community culture: be nice, be honest, be helpful. Every user can report posts that offend these rules. If posts are reported by several users in a short time the post is automatically blocked and the customer support contacts the author asking what is the motivation behind the post. The simple fact of getting in touch and being blocked for some time solved most of the conflicts that emerge.
Since nebenan.de connects all the residents of a single neighbourhood, it is not simply replacing one technology with another or re-inventing already existing tools. Local neighbourhood networks bring together people who live in close proximity but who may have never really gotten to know each other. The platform actively reduces the barriers that can prevent neighbourly contact and builds social capital by creating a safe public space where people of different generations and cultural and social backgrounds can connect.
The importance of offline activities
Several studies show that better connected neighbourhoods have more social capital because neighbours know and trust each other more. These neighbourhoods are safer and healthier places, and have a positive influence on children’s education. At the same time, online interaction is only a tool and not an end in itself.
We envision a world where people identify with the place where they live and engage with their local community, strengthening personal relationships and reaching common goals. To achieve this, the nebenan.de Foundation supports local neighbourhood initiatives and offline networks through the German Neighbourhood Award, which awards outstanding local neighbourhood initiatives with more than 50.000€ prize money each year. The foundation also helps these initiatives share their knowledge and replicate their models in other neighbourhoods by connecting them to the online platform’s most engaged neighbours, who currently number around 10,000. In addition, the foundation is launching the first German Neighbourhood Day on May 25th when thousands of people and supporting institutions will participate in a local neighbourhood party. Through these and other outreach activities, the foundation seeks to reach people lacking technological skills and include them in their local neighbourhood networks.
The challenge of scaling-up and financial sustainability
We came a long way since our foundation in June 2015. Yet, we had to overcome countless challenges, almost every day. In the beginning, we had to learn how we can build a critical mass of users in a short period of time. Only through rapid prototyping and a lot of A-B-testing we found the secret sauce needed to start a neighbourhood at reasonable costs. Once found the challenge was to scale the method from 6, to 600, to 6000 neighbourhoods within two years’ time. Today, we ask ourselves how we can transfer the idea from Germany to other European countries.
Today, we ask ourselves how we can find a sustainable business model that not only pays our bills but also strengthens our social mission. Therefore, we soon will start testing freemium models with our users (where the basic service we provide today stays for free but users can upgrade to a premium account for extra features). According to the claim “support your local dealer” we want to include local businesses and service providers – who we think are an integral part of lively neighbourhoods – into the hyperlocal communication with their casual customers. Through helping them to digitize their hyperlocal commercials we want to empower them in their struggle against big online shops. Again, we are starting from scratch and again we will have to test and fail, and test again and fail better. The typical start-up way to venture into the void.
Could nebenan.de also work in developing countries?
Many local communities and neighbourhoods are very well connected, both on- and offline, in some developing countries. In just one of many examples, neighbours in Chile formed WhatsApp groups to coordinate emergency responses in case of an earthquake. , thus fostering social capital and building trust. nebenan.de would only need small language adaptions to be up and running in many developing countries, e.g. Kenya, the Philippines or Chile. The real challenge we would face is finding the right hyperlocal marketing tools and guerrilla marketing techniques to identify the local leaders and to reach critical mass in an appropriate period of time. But by using social-entrepreneurial iterative testing and learning, we could meet this challenge.
The importance of a digital infrastructure that can be used by (urban) citizen for self-organization, local community building and civil society action cannot be overestimated. This is even more true in times where huge international communications companies and authoritarian regimes alike threaten the freedom of speech in the digital sphere. It is in all our interest to keep innovating for secure, private, digital communication between citizen. Especially for those who live together door to door.