Expedia founder Richard Barton wanted cash for a used Macbook. Instead, he got yoga lessons, a new connection with a neighbor and a company to invest in.

Barton had posted classified ad offering the computer for sale on Nextdoor, a nine-month-old site that bills itself as “a free private social network for your neighborhood.” Now available in 3,600 neighborhoods across the U.S. and adding 20 a day, the site aims to connect people who want to be neighborly without taking the more intrusive step of becoming Facebook friends.

“There are different social networks for different people. My wife is 39 weeks pregnant and when she finally delivers, I’ll post those photos on Facebook,” said CEO and co-founder Nirav Tolia. “If we’re looking to buy a used stroller I’d post that on Nextdoor.”

Barton ended up having a glass of wine with the person who stopped by to purchase the computer. When he found out the buyer was a yoga instructor, he tried to trade the laptop for yoga lessons. More important, he was so taken with the connection that he joined Nextdoor’s board.

Avoiding The Empty Bar Syndrome

Just 2% of the average Facebook user’s friends live in their neighborhood, the Pew Research Center estimates. Nextdoor seeks to fill that void. It's becoming an outlet for service recommendations, community announcements, hyperlocal news and lost pet notices. (Tolia estimates about a dozen lost cats and dogs are reconnected with their owners each week on Nextdoor.)

If your neighborhood isn’t currently listed on Nextdoor, you can add it. But in doing so, you commit to getting nine neighbors to sign up within 21 days. That avoids the “empty bar” syndrome, Tolia said, that occurs when people sign up for a social network but find no one they can connect with.

“It’s really social discovery built around problem solving,” Tolia said. “It’s understanding why the fire trucks are in your neighborhood and tapping into your neighbors as resources.” 

Social Discovery Trumps Search

About 26% of the posts on Nextdoor are recommendations of local service providers. Unlike Yelp (which Tolia says he is a “big fan” of), the recommendations come from people in the membership's offline social networks. That tends to give them more weight and credibility than recommendations from strangers. It also allows people to ask for specific recommendations that may not be available on sites like Yelp.

“In the old days, you may have picked up the Yellow Pages to find an electrician,” Tolia said. “Today no one uses the Yellow Pages, and if you type ‘electrician in my area’ into Google, the results are usually unusable.”