OAKLEY -- Hundreds of Oakley households already belong to virtual neighborhoods, and now City Hall is adopting this new way of sharing its news.
The city recently came out with an enthusiastic endorsement of Nextdoor, the first private social network for neighborhoods in the country.
The concept is simple: Bring residents together online by giving them a free website where only those who live in their immediate area can see and exchange information. This 21st-century version of neighbors chatting over the fence offers an easy way for people to find out about that burglary around the corner, organize a block party, advertise a garage sale, share recommendations of local businesses or issue an all-points bulletin for a wayward pet.
Established in 2010 by venture capitalists, Nextdoor is a privately funded San Francisco company whose goal is to foster more tightly knit, safer communities.
The startup launched its website in October 2011, and it is now used by 8,573 online neighborhood groups in all 50 states.
The restricted access to each neighborhood's site is one reason that Nextdoor appeals to Councilman Randy Pope, who in August took the lead encouraging others in his Laurel Crest subdivision to sign up.
He wasn't an instant convert, however.
Pope had heard of Nextdoor at a conference well over a year ago but initially was skeptical.
"I was kind of like, 'What's their angle? What are they trying to sell? What's it going to cost?' " he said.
But Pope's interest was rekindled after he saw some TV and print coverage about how some Oakland neighborhoods were using the service.
These days, he serves as an informal conduit of City Hall news in his Nextdoor neighborhood, which has grown to 45 members. Pope posts reminders of council and other local government meetings, as well as city-sponsored events such as composting workshops.
He also used the forum to share crime prevention tips after burglars broke into his in-laws' home, and over the holidays he and his neighbors compared notes on where to see the best Christmas light displays.
Unlike other popular social media tools, he considers Nextdoor a way to lay the groundwork for eventually meeting neighbors face to face.
"It creates the environment for meeting people you wouldn't have otherwise met," Pope said, noting that he hopes to organize a block party through the site once the weather gets warmer.
Residents elsewhere have jumped on board as well: Of the 43 prospective neighborhoods that Nextdoor has identified on a map of Oakley, 12 have established an online presence and boast memberships ranging from 112 households to 439, according to a Nextdoor spokeswoman.
And now the city of Oakley has struck an agreement with Nextdoor that will allow it to post news on some or all of these neighborhood websites.
Unlike those who actually live in those parts of town, however, city officials won't be able to read what residents are writing in the forums.
"I think it makes people (feel) more free to share stuff when they don't think that local government is going to take offense to it," Pope said.
The only time there will be two-way conversation is when a resident responds directly to a city post, an exchange that's visible to everyone.
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.
First go to www.nextdoor.com and enter your address to see if there's already a website for your neighborhood. If not, you can sign up to start one.
Residents must provide at least their real name and the name of the street when signing up; emails, phone numbers and photos are optional.
The whole idea behind prohibiting anonymous screen names is to encourage neighbors to get to know each other, says Nextdoor Communications Manager Whitney Swindells.
"You're more likely to say hello to John Doe rather than 'soccerguy1985,' " she said.
The company makes it easy for participants to invite their neighbors to join by sending postcards on their behalf at no cost.
In keeping with the restricted nature of the sites, Nextdoor forums can't be found by search engines, and the company doesn't share personal information with third parties.