It wasn’t the sort of story you’d expect to emerge from Brooklyn, the middle-class Wellington suburb perched high above the capital, writes Peter Griffin

Huge scary spider terrorising locals!

The headline was pure clickbait, but it didn’t come from the usual mainstream media suspects.

“A humongous spider, of totally unreasonable proportions, is hanging out in Brooklyn terrorising the locals,” Brooklyn resident Caroline Donovan wrote in March on the community website Neighbourly, alongside two photos of a saucer-sized brown spider sitting on the footpath.

“Unearthed by roadworks, it now lurks on the sidewalk, confronting innocent residents as we walk to work. I have encountered it two days in a row and I can no longer cope,” continued Donovan, as she appealed for a brave neighbour to take the arachnid away.

Was it a Huntsman or a funnel-web? What was the best way to pick it up? Where would be a suitable place to re-home it? Two days and over one hundred comments later, all of these questions had been answered by the Neighbourly community. But the saga concluded with a surprise development – the spider was made of plastic. Donovan and her fellow Brooklyn residents had been pranked.

Such is the quirky charm, good nature and occasional practical usefulness of Neighbourly.co.nz, which in March became the second biggest “online member community” in New Zealand behind Facebook, with 730,000 address-verified members.

Of the top 10 websites in New Zealand, as ranked by web analyst SimilarWeb, six host sizeable online communities of some kind – Facebook, YouTube, Trade Me, Wikipedia, Instagram and Stuff. The latter owns Neighbourly and is one of the few mainstream news outlets still running comments beneath its stories.

Social media is big business – Facebook had net income of over US$22 billion last year. But, while Silicon Valley behemoths dominate in sheer traffic, a number of players are providing an online community service with a distinctly Kiwi feel.

They are also paying increasing attention to suppressing hate speech and abusive behaviour on their platforms. The 15 March mosque killings and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s “Christchurch Call” to fight the spread of extremism online has spurred them into doing their bit.

Neighbourly, ranked at 124 by SimilarWeb, doesn’t compel users to engage in the news-feed scrolling, swiping and liking that Facebook and Instagram are engineered for. But it increasingly serves as a popular hyper-local forum for online communities from one end of the country to the other.

“There are certainly some neighbourhoods with a huge membership. Remuera (in Auckland) for example, has almost 7,000 households signed up,” says Neighbourly’s head, Sarah Moore.

Around 900 ‘Neighbourly leads’ dotted around the country act as super-users on the site, posting prolifically and organising events.

“One lead runs a Neighbourly coffee catch-up at her local cafe,” says Moore.

“It’s so popular the whole cafe is filled with people and the cafe sometimes provides the coffee for free.”

“It’s a big suburb. Ultimately, we like to look at the number of members versus the number of addresses in the area. Te Kowhai in Hamilton, for example, has 76 percent of the suburb’s households signed up to the website.”

They log into Neighbourly to search for a babysitter, complain about potholes or leaking fire hydrants, or to report missing pets.

But Moore, who joined Neighbourly in 2013 as the start-up’s first employee without a software development background, says the site is increasingly becoming a place for “grittier discussions”.

“It is local crime and safety issues, or council decisions, for example,” she says. “Conversations that have a direct impact on how we live, feel and celebrate our neighbourhoods.”

This gels with trends in the United States, where social platforms for local communities like Nextdoor, Citizen, and Amazon’s Neighbors have become some of the most downloaded social media apps in recent months.

At home, our Neighbourly is divided up by neighbourhoods and with members required to use their real names, Neighbourly offers a level of intimacy and familiarity often foreign to inner-city neighbourhoods, where students and transient renters rarely settle long enough to get to know each other.

“It has helped untold numbers of people break the ice with their neighbours and those connections have undoubtedly led to differences being made in our communities,” says Moore.

Around 900 ‘Neighbourly leads’ dotted around the country act as super-users on the site, posting prolifically and organising events.

“One lead runs a Neighbourly coffee catch-up at her local cafe,” says Moore.

“It’s so popular the whole cafe is filled with people and the cafe sometimes provides the coffee for free.”

Neighbourly has automated systems to flag objectionable material posted on the site, but Moore says the most “significant layer” of content moderation is its Member Experience Team.

“This team takes action quickly when something appears on its radar. A quick response time is important to us – and it shows our members that they, and their feedback, are important too,” she says.

“The [Neighbourly] sire is increadingly becoming a place for grittier discussions... local crime and safety issues or council decisions”

Sarah Moore, Head of Neighbourly

This personal touch is an advantage local online communities have over Facebook and other major social media platforms. These use automated content moderation to a greater degree and offer limited human customer support to New Zealand users.

Government departments spend tens of millions of dollars advertising on Facebook each year.

But the likes of ACC and Housing New Zealand, local authorities and emergency services have been quick to see the potential of an engaged audience with local matters on its mind. The majority of councils now post updates on Neighbourly, and New Zealand Police and St John Ambulance use it to convey targeted hyper-local information to residents.

Neighbourly’s earnings aren’t separated out from those of Stuff, but Moore says the site is profitable. It makes money from running promoted posts and premium business listings and has large sponsors in AMI and Resene.

Stuff first invested in Neighbourly in 2014 in a bid to find new streams of revenue to address declining newspaper circulation and advertising. This became more urgent when a proposed merger with rival publisher, NZME, was turned down by the Commerce Commission. Stuff acquired 100 percent of the Neighbourly site in 2017 and has integrated its news operation into it. Stuff journalists post stories and chat with locals on the site, and 380,000 Neighbourly users have their Stuff community newspaper emailed to them via the site.

TRADE ME DISCUSSIONS STILL THRIVING

Trade Me’s long-standing message board continues to host thriving discussions after nearly 20 years, although spokesman Paul Ford says the volume of posts has waned with the rise of social media platforms.

“These global behemoths obviously pour huge resources into making their platforms highly convenient for everyday interactions,” says Ford.

On Trade Me’s board “there are some hardcore posters for sure,” says Ford. “But overall use is by a relatively small proportion of the 800,000 people who visit Trade Me on one app or another every day.”

Around 15,000 messages on a wide range of topics are posted every day – down from 25,000 a day in 2009. Message Board posts are not pre-vetted by moderators, but the community can vote off offensive comments or message threads. On a typical day 0.4 percent of messages are removed, although in the wake of the Christchurch terror attacks, posts have been flagged for removal more often.

“The Christchurch attack changed the public mood,” says Ford.

“We’ve seen that change on the Trade Me marketplace too, with Confederate flags, Golliwogs and Jolly money boxes receiving a lot more complaints than ever before. We’ve since banned them, partly because of this change in sentiment.”

However, the weight of numbers is with Facebook when it comes to online communities. Pick an area of interest, a niche or broad one, and someone will have taken the easy step of starting a Facebook page or group to facilitate discussion. Facebook claims 400 million users are actively engaged in its groups each month.

If you are setting out to backpack your way around our beautiful country, you would be foolish not to join ‘New Zealand Backpackers’. The 73,000-member Facebook group is devoted to helping travellers enjoy the best backpacking experience possible.

The Kahu Rugby and World Sports Facebook group has nearly 104,000 members and is currently buzzing with discussion around the build up to the Rugby World Cup, which kicks off in Japan in September.

GREYHOUND LOVE

When Pat Pilcher’s pet greyhound, Bomber, died suddenly from cancer in 2016, the Wellington writer vowed to help other greyhound owners struggling with their own dogs’ health afflictions.

He started the Facebook group ‘The Greyhound Health Repository’, which now has around 700 members. He is also the administrator for another group that hosts broader-ranging discussions, ‘For the Love of Greyhounds’, which has 1,300 members.

There are doting dog owners everywhere. But greyhound owners are their own special breed, super attentive to their dogs’ needs, seeking each other out to share tips and attending hound meet-ups.

“Recently, a greyhound being walked was badly mauled and needed costly surgery,” says Pilcher.

“Within a week, $2,246 was raised. There’s a lot of support shared, and a lot of strong friendships have developed in the group.”

For example, owners volunteer their dogs for a blood transfusion and offer comforting words ahead of a greyhound’s cataract operation.

Pilcher and his fellow administrators have formulated some simple principles for the greyhound forums to keep the tone of discussion civil and constructive.

“We don’t discourage debate, but we do ask that issues rather than personalities are argued,” says Pilcher.

“We experience very little grief, which I find quite amazing given how many people are in the group.”

Across the hundreds of millions of Facebook groups and pages active on the global site, administrators and content moderators make their own judgement calls in an attempt to self-police what amounts to the largest online community in the world.

Last year, Facebook tweaked its algorithms to reduce the reach of traffic from pages owned by businesses. Instead it now prioritises posts from friends and family. It has also elevated the status of groups.

“Research shows that strengthening our relationships improves our wellbeing and happiness,” explained Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The move led to big name brands embracing groups as a way to engage customers without having to invest vast sums in Facebook advertising just to give their content visibility. This saw some discussions shift to a private group setting.

This trend will continue as Facebook pivots again to emphasise privacy and boost use of its messaging apps, Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp. These will be encrypted and made interoperable.

It could be seen as a move by Facebook to free itself from the hassle and expense of trying to keep tabs on billions of conversations. But Facebook won’t abandon groups and pages. The advertising targeted at people logging on to the platform is too lucrative to allow this.

“Facebook isn’t perfect,” admits Pilcher. “But, while the Christchurch massacre dominated media coverage of social media, there are still a huge number of Facebook groups like ours that are making a real difference in the background.”

Where the geeks gather

 

 

 

Mauricio Frietas, Creator of Geekzone

If you are looking for a local spin on all things tech-related, there’s one online community you can’t pass up – Geekzone

Created in 2003 by Brazilian tech consultant Mauricio Frietas, the site gained a following in the nascent days of broadband and mobile phone networks, helping tech enthusiasts cut through the marketing hype and technical jargon.

In its first year, its message forums hosted 638 discussion topics and garnered 3,000 replies. Now the site has around 175,000 discussions and over 2.2 million replies. It attracts 300,000 active users each month.

The site’s users frequent Facebook, Reddit and other social media sites as well, says Freitas, but they stay loyal to Geekzone (SimilarWeb rank: 376).

“They trust each other and the platform, and they all have different tech interests that are well discussed in the forums.”

Volunteer moderators police Geekzone’s Forum Usage Guidelines, and automated measures are used to deal with spam. Freitas also plans to install an automated post-scoring system based on Google’s Perspective API (application programming interface) to automatically notify moderators of suspicious activity.

Telecoms providers and consumer tech companies know how trusted and influential the site is, so deploy staff to the forums to offer technical assistance and customer support.

“Our local meetups are sponsored by those telcos, who then have a chance to talk directly to users and find out more about their use cases and needs and wants,” says Freitas, who these days oversees Geekzone as a side hustle to his day job in digital marketing.

“It’s a good feedback loop,” he says.