Facebook’s integrated neighborhoods feature expands to the US but faces a crowded niche market

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When Facebook started testing its new ‘Neighborhoods’ feature in Canada last October amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the tech giant described it as a dedicated place where people can connect with their local communities. .

Here, in a corner of the world’s largest social network, people met neighbors, shared banana bread ingredients, helped locate missing cats, and traded recommendations from local businesses, the product manager said. feature, Reid Patton, in a recent interview. 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 catching up in the hot local social apps market. Community site Nextdoor has become a key player along with Amazon Ring neighbors and the Citizen crime tracker app. Nextdoor, which has seen an increase in usage during blackouts, reported 50% annual growth in the number of daily active users last year.

In recent years, Facebook has focused on on-site communities that matter to its users as a tactic to drive engagement. The company, which made the vast majority of its nearly $ 84.2 billion ad revenue last year from small businesses, many of which court local users, also said user activity and insight in neighborhoods can be used to personalize their Facebook experience and ads. Neighborhood users are invited to introduce themselves, register their interests, and answer icebreaker questions, like their favorite DIY projects. People can take on roles like “socializer” or “helper,” and their profile information fills a directory that even identifies local pets by name, Patton said.

But Facebook, long criticized for its moderation and design decisions, will likely face challenges that plagued rival hyperlocal platforms, such as misinformation, racial profiling and privacy concerns, civil rights groups say. and social media researchers. Facebook is already under close scrutiny by lawmakers over its Groups feature, which it says is used by more than 1.8 billion people each month, including to connect with their local communities. Researchers identified Facebook groups as a source of misrepresentation and incitement to violence before the U.S. Capitol riot.

“Online rhetoric can very quickly lead to antagonism and violence offline,” said Nina Jankowicz, a global researcher at the Wilson Center who has studied how Facebook groups have been used to push conspiracies. “The moderation of groups on Facebook leaves a lot to be desired.” Facebook’s Patton said the neighborhood design team took into account the issues in the groups: “We tried to learn from Facebook products and beyond. , and create an experience that makes people feel safe. One neighborhood relies heavily on multiple unpaid community moderators, offered the role through Facebook after assessing their level of activity in other communities and tracking down offenders. He is also developing moderator training on sensitive issues. All Neighborhoods users must be over 18 and new accounts or repeat violators are not allowed.

As expected, recent traffic to some neighborhoods has shown typical local community messages. In San Diego, residents shared photos of dogs and alerts for lost house keys. In Toronto, the posts ranged from a survey on dating during the pandemic to photos of a stolen bicycle. Facebook hasn’t put public safety at the center of neighborhoods, but Reuters has found warnings of endemic citizen crime in community apps already appearing. In Vancouver, users commented on a photo of a man allegedly following women in the area, while someone else described meeting someone breaking into their home. Still images were shared by security cameras of a “suspicious person” watching property and children allegedly stealing packages. In the last post, a user advised to keep a box and put dog feces in it.

Patton said the neighborhoods did not have any features involving law enforcement. Nextdoor has created a tool for users to pass their messages to the police, and Amazon Ring’s Neighbors now makes police requests more transparent. Although Neighborhoods community guidelines ask users to be inclusive and kind, surveillance researchers argue that rapidly growing local platforms do not focus enough on potential harm, like racial profiling and misinformation. Citizen grabbed the headlines last month when he paid a bounty of $ 30,000 (around Rs. 22 lakhs) to find a homeless man wrongly accused of starting a forest fire.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if (Facebook) cared a little less about the kindness you show to people you suspect of stealing your packages,” said Matthew Guariglia, surveillance analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Facebook’s biggest challenge in the hyperlocal The market is overtaking its competitors. Nextdoor said it covers one-third of U.S. households, operates in 276,000 neighborhoods around the world, and plans to expand to more countries.

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

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