Facebook’s next big play could be all about getting to know your neighbors. The company confirmed this week that it’s testing a new feature that encourages users to post and share news in miniature social networks focused on small geographical areas. Users can create special profiles that share limited information with their neighbors, while Facebook itself will use the detailed location data it collects from those enrolled to serve “more relevant” ads.
The feature, named Neighborhoods, is currently being tested in just a single market, Calgary in Canada, but it’s likely Facebook will roll out access more widely if the test is a success. Another hyperlocal social network, Nextdoor, has shown the viability of this model and is reportedly seeking an IPO with a valuation of between $4 billion and $5 billion.
Screenshots of the Neighborhoods feature were shared on Twitter on Tuesday by social media consultant Matt Navarra, while an earlier version of the feature was spotted in May by Jane Manchun Wong. A Facebook spokesperson confirmed the test to Bloomberg, saying: “More than ever, people are using Facebook to participate in their local communities. To help make it easier to do this, we are rolling out a limited test of Neighborhoods, a dedicated space within Facebook for people to connect with their neighbors.”
The screenshots shared by Navarra show the onboarding process, with Facebook users prompted to “connect with neighbors.” Users need to confirm their location to be matched to their area (they can revoke access to this data afterward, though this will have a minimal effect in terms of privacy unless the user later moves away) and then create a limited profile that can be viewed by those nearby, even if they’re not Facebook friends.
A welcome screen for the feature tells users to remember five rules: “be inclusive,” “be kind,” “keep it local,” “keep it clean,” and “share valuable information.” Users can invite friends to join and are prompted to answer questions about their neighborhood and share pictures. Navarra reports that users can leave or switch neighborhoods at any time.
A focus on neighborhoods would match Facebook’s slow move toward smaller communities. In recent years, the company has put more emphasis on private and public groups, as opposed to more open sharing between a user’s widest circle of friends.
This change in strategy has not been uncontroversial, though. Facebook’s critics say its new focus on groups has amplified a number of unpleasant trends, from the growth of the anti-vax movement to militias using Facebook groups to incite violence. Moderating these groups has required more effort than Facebook is willing to give, and the same damaging dynamics could easily repeat themselves in neighborhood-focused enclaves. Nextdoor, for example, has been repeatedly criticized for inadvertently fostering racism on its platform, and Facebook’s track record does not suggest it would be able to avoid similar toxicity.