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Menlo Park: Lorelei Manor hailed as Nextdoor's first neighborhood

Lorelei Manor, a Menlo Park neighborhood that claims it has the longest-running homeowner association in California, can now take pride in another neighborhood title: America's first Nextdoor neighborhood.

The neighborhood is made up of about 90 households, with a 92 percent homeownership rate. Together with Suburban Park and Flood Triangle, Lorelei Manor is in the area bounded by Marsh Road, Bay Road and U.S. 101.

Today, there are 140,000 neighborhoods enrolled in Nextdoor, or about 75 percent of all of the neighborhoods in the U.S., according to Nextdoor co-founder Sarah Leary.

But it all started with Lorelei Manor, where, in the summer of 2010, the fledgling startup piloted the social network for neighbors.

The anniversary was commemorated on May 20 with an ice cream social for residents.

Nextdoor co-founder Prakash Janakiram said in an interview that the founders were looking to start something after other social networks were considered mainstream. Around the same time, they came across a study claiming that 28 percent of Americans didn't know a single neighbor by name, he said.

"How odd was it that you had Facebook connecting people all over the world, and Twitter connecting people that didn't even know one another, on the basis of shared interests, but you didn't know the people on the other side of your fence? That seemed really strange to us," he said.

The co-founders, he said, began to think, "maybe we could do something a little unorthodox by building a technology platform that reconnected people in their own communities."

Mr. Janakiram said he often used to visit his friends Salim and Farah Shaikh, residents of Lorelei Manor. Their neighborhood, he said, struck him as a strong candidate for a pilot for Nextdoor: it was relatively small, enclosed, and already highly connected, both on- and offline. The neighborhood had an active Yahoo email group and a tradition of promoting gatherings, such as its annual Halloween parade.

According to Mr. Janakiram, Mr. Shaikh was open to the idea, but said that the website would have to be vetted by the homeowner association first.

Ms. Leary pitched the idea at the association's board meeting, where board members sat in oversize loungers, she recalled, and the topic was last on the agenda. The board did approve the pilot.

In the first month of the pilot, she said, users adopted the site for a lot of the purposes it's been used for ever since – organizing events such as a Halloween parade, posting photos, tracking down a lost package, and asking for music teacher recommendations.

"I wouldn't know what else is going on without communication via Nextdoor," said Lisa Duke, one of the few renters in the neighborhood.

Nextdoor CEO Nirav Tolia, with kids in tow, told the residents that, compared to other neighborhoods, theirs is an outlier for the high-frequency use of such words as "party," "cookies," and "ice cream truck."

At the May 20 anniversary event, City Councilman Peter Ohtaki read a proclamation recognizing the neighborhood, and the event concluded with the unveiling of a Nextdoor-sponsored sign declaring Lorelei Manor to be "America's First Nextdoor Neighborhood." It was installed at the intersection of Bay Road and Christopher Way.

At its San Francisco headquarters, the company, which now numbers about 150 employees, has paid homage to the neighborhood by naming the largest conference room "Lorelei," Ms. Leary told attendees. "All of you have understood community for a long time."

Next for Nextdoor

In an interview, Mr. Janakiram said that Nextdoor, which, in a sense, gives every neighbor a megaphone, has resulted in some "unexpected" uses – for better and worse.

On the positive side, he told about how neighbors on Nextdoor recently banded together to help a wheelchair-bound woman build a ramp to her home. (Internally, the company reports positive stories about Nextdoor at its weekly all-hands meetings, he said.)

On the negative side, he said, people have said things that are insensitive or abusive, and the website has struggled with incidents of racial profiling. Last August, the company changed its algorithm to prompt people to be more clear about what they're observing when they want to report suspicious behavior. The added prompts, he said, create "friction" or additional steps a person must go through before they make a post that includes information about a person's race. When reporting to the site's crime and safety page, for instance, Nextdoor users are met with a pop-up that directs them to focus on describing a suspicious person's behavior, and not only his or her race.

"That's not to say that we think our platform will solve racism," he said. "What we want to do is create a platform that encourages civil discourse about the issues that are most important to the communities."

Since those changes were made, "we've seen that there's been a nearly 75 percent reduction in the types of posts that would classify as racial profiling," he said. "We think we can do better."

As Nextdoor continues to expand, he said, the company will face the challenge of trying to organize the "chatter" and match relevant information to users' interests.

At Nextdoor's last funding round in March 2015, the company was valued at $1.1 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal. In January 2017, the company announced it had begun to incorporate sponsored posts on the site. Before then, it was entirely funded by venture capital, including from Menlo Park firms Redpoint Ventures, Greylock Partners and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and in Woodside's Benchmark Capital.

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