People like to talk to their neighbors. People are also terrified of their neighbors. Since time immemorial, sociologists, anthropologists, urban planners, politicians, community organizers and those wanting to throw neighborhood block parties have sought to understand and resolve this phenomenon. Add to the list a new iPhone app: Blockboard.
“We often don’t want to be friends with our neighbors,” says Blockboard’s co-founder, Stephen Hood, “because we can’t escape them. But it’s a major problem that we’ve forgotten how to talk to the people next door. We think that technology can play a role to help. Smartphones can be a way to reengage with the neighborhood.”
But FidoNet was created at least in part because Jennings wanted to stay in touch with a friend in Baltimore, and the Internet was about creating neighborhoods that weren’t constrained by physical location. In allowing people to communicate with each other regardless of distance, the Internet helped them sort themselves into barrios of kink, quirk, task and social linkage.
Blockboard is part of a new generation of smartphone apps out to reintroduce the limitations of proximity to the virtual world. Regional sites like the Chicago-based Everyblock aggregate a similar data set, but don’t ask where the user is. With Blockboard, a user needs to be physically in the Mission to open the app for the first time. It’s able to do this because Blockboard only exists as a phone application — it uses the phone’s own geolocation as a verifier, opening and closing as the user enters and exits the Mission.
Hood describes it as a combination community bulletin board and water cooler, though it’s a more flexible water cooler than most: After signing in for the first time, users can also post and read from outside the neighborhood, so that they can do things like check local event listings while they’re at work.
Since the application launched quietly a month ago, a few hundred people have joined. So far they’ve used it to report trash piles on the street to 311 and post photos of stolen bicycles, lost cats and old-looking bottlecaps found in their backyard — in other words, in much the same ways that Mission residents use the smorgasboard of email lists, regional websites, local blogs, Twitter feeds and public art projects designed as telephone poles currently available to them.
The critical difference, says Hood, is this regionality combined with the ability for users to vote up or flag certain posts — a technological fix that he sees as a way to keep the developing community from becoming overwhelmed by neighborhood cranks (the way that community message boards can be) or people advertising massage, 80s dance nights, creative writing workshops and life coaching (the way that telephone poles usually are).
The Blockboard team, which hails from San Jose (Hood, once a product team lead at del.icio.us), the Mission (Josh Whiting, former senior engineer at Craigslist) Lafayette (Ian Kallen, former senior systems and software architect at Technorati), and Noe Valley (Dave Baggeroer who is on the faculty of Stanford’s Institute of Design) chose to launch in the Mission, but expect to have launched in every neighborhood in San Francisco within a year.
Blockboard is backed by an impressive list of investors, including Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus, and Joshua Schachter, founder of del.icio.us, but has shifted, and continues to shift, since the early days of its development, when it was a since-discontinued version called BlockChalk.
“We’ve learned a lot,” says Hood. Even since the launch a month ago, the group has made several tweaks. Initially the app identified users only by their handles, on the assumption that they would relish the privacy. Instead, people complained. Lesson learned: Not everyone wants to be anonymous. The crew added an option to create a profile with links to a Twitter feed or Facebook page. One-third of the users who have signed up since the option was added have chosen to fill in some part of their profile data.
What else have they learned? “People like to ask questions of neighbors,” says Hood. “That seems to be a powerful use, potentially. People post interesting photos. People seem to love the 311 integration. A lot of people check frequently, and then a subset is posting. But it’s not uncommon that a large percentage of people observe.”
The team recently modified Blockboard to enable posters to cross-post from Blockboard to Twitter and Facebook, since users rebelled at the idea of publishing to such a limited audience. Currently, Blockboard is constrained not only geographically but by device. An Android version is planned, but remains in the pipeline. A web version may materialize, but is not a priority.
Meanwhile, the team, which started off as a group of geographically distributed telecommuters, has become local. A few months ago they rented space at i/o ventures, above the Summit. “People in tech tend to work in an almost nomadic way,” Hood says. “All you need is your laptop. Everything else is in the cloud.
“We actually do have space now. With a door. I don’t know where we’ll end up once there are more than four of us.”