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An electronic world creates new and varied social circles

| Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012

People who once conversed over fences, in driveways and on porches now do so online.

Websites such as the newly debuted Nextdoor use neighborhood-created maps to form private groups for neighbors.• Even longtime civic associations are moving communications to Facebook.

"People used to be at home more; now they're out and about," said Jennifer Suiters, 43, president of Blackridge Civic Association, which recently replaced its printed newsletter with an electronic one and a Facebook page that has drawn 115 "likes."

"Years ago, parents stayed home and people were in the house more, so it was easier to be connected to the community. This is just a way to stay connected and know what's going on in the community."

The move saves the association about $2,500 a year she says.

Suiters posted reassessment information to the association's page and got quick reaction from residents. She said certain topics, such as Marcellus shale drilling, tend to spark online conversation.

"It's not as interactive as I would've expected, but we do have an older neighborhood," Suiters said, noting the association has 600 to 650 houses in Wilkinsburg, Penn Hills and Churchill. "They hibernate sometimes, but if there's an important topic, people come out and give their opinions and give out facts."

A different breed

Unlike Facebook, Nextdoor is geared specifically for neighborhoods, spokeswoman Whitney Swindells said. A group of technology executives started the San Francisco-based site in October to fill what they saw as a gap in social-networking sites, she said.

"There was no network designed to connect with those in your neighborhood, and they thought that was one of the most important communities," Swindells said.

Neighbors create the boundaries of a neighborhood and the company requires address verification to join a site. People can discuss local issues, give recommendations for contractors, or send out alerts about lost pets, for example, Swindells said.

Thirteen Nextdoor communities with more than 600 members exist in Pittsburgh and its suburbs, including Mt. Lebanon and Cranberry. Fifty-seven "pilot" neighborhoods have launched in the area, awaiting the required 10 members to begin.

In 2011, 65 percent of online adults used a social networking site, according a report from the Pew Research Center. A 2010 report from the center found that 20 percent of adults use digital tools to connect with neighbors, and 19 percent said they knew their neighbors' names.

"All this research was finding that people don't really know the people around them," Swindells said. "Sometimes they'll know the person next door, but what about two doors down• It's strange, but they're finding that by going online and forming those connections, people are more apt to connect offline."

Online versus face to face

A writing group sprung out of Lawrenceville's Nextdoor community, active for about two months with nearly 250 households, said Susan VanAlstine, 43, of Lawrenceville.

"I might never meet most of these folks, but I can still have an online relationship with them," VanAlstine said. "It provides a way to reach out and let people know what's going on without having to go and meet your neighbors. I'm not against meeting neighbors -- we're actually a very social neighborhood -- but some folks are housebound."

Cranberry officials won a statewide award for connecting with residents online through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts. Manager Jerry Andree said social networking makes sense, given the community's younger demographics.

"I can't recall the last time I got a written letter from a resident. It's always emails," Andree said.

The township plans to begin a program to alert people to emergency situations, such as a waterline break, by phone, email or text, Andree said. He said social networking gives officials immediate access to residents and ensures they know how people feel about issues.

"People are very busy," he said. "Our philosophy is we need to go to them and social media does that. They shouldn't have to figure out the third Tuesday of the month to say something. They can get in touch with us 24/7. That's the guiding principal."

Social connections for some websites operating in suburbia go beyond chats and information.

The Scott-based Just Between Friends seeks to help parents and groups manage responsibilities such as volunteer work or fundraising, said CEO David Radin.

"It's not really all about making friends -- the idea is to have one place where you can get all your contacts, rosters, directories," Radin said. "It's to give you ability to be in the right place in the right time with the right equipment and the right kid."

The company began four years ago, but Radin said its real growth started about two years ago when the National PTA made Just Between Friends its official communication and member system. The company's school communities grew from about three dozen to about 8,000. He expects that number to climb to 24,000 or 25,000 in a few years.

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