Facebook’s Neighborhoods Feature Faces Crowded Niche Market, Profiling Concerns

Facebook began testing its new “Neighborhoods” feature in Canada last October amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The tech giant described it as a dedicated place for people to connect with their local communities.

But Facebook, which is rolling out the feature in four US cities – Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Charlotte, North Carolina; Newark, New Jersey; and San Diego, California – is already playing catch-up in the red-hot market for local social apps. Community site Nextdoor has appeared as a key player along with Amazon Ring’s Neighbors and crime-tracking app Citizen. Nextdoor, which saw usage surge during lockdowns, reported 50 percent annual growth in daily active users last year.

Neighborhoods users are prompted to introduce themselves, log interests, and answer ice-breaker questions, like favorite DIY projects.

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Nevertheless Facebook is already under scrutiny from lawmakers over its Groups feature, which it says is used by more than 1.8 billion people every month, including to connect with their local communities. Researchers identified Facebook Groups as a source of false states and violent incitement ahead of the US Capitol riot.

So a Neighborhood largely depends on multiple unpaid community moderators, offered the role by Facebook after it assesses how active they are in other communities and screens rule-breakers. It is also developing moderator training on sensitive issues.

As designed, recent traffic on some Neighborhoods showed typical local community messages. In San Diego, residents shared dog photos and alerts for lost house keys. In Toronto, posts ranged from a poll about dating in the pandemic to pictures of a stolen bike.

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Citizen made headlines last month when it put out a $30,000 (roughly Rs. 22 lakhs) reward to find a homeless man it wrongly accused of starting a wildfire.

Facebook’s biggest challenge in the hyperlocal market is overcoming the head start of its competitors. Nextdoor said it covers a third of US households, operates in 276,000 neighbourhoods globally and is planning expansion in more countries.

Facebook’s arrival “doesn’t really mean anything. It means eyes on the prize,” Nextdoor CEO Sarah Friar said in an interview. “From a broader perspective it certainly, I think, proves our point that local has never mattered more.”

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