By BOB TEDESCHI
FACEBOOK and MySpace struck a chord with people who want to socialize from a distance. But will people use social networks to actually meet their neighbors?
That’s the hope of at least one new company, LifeAt.com, which is putting a local spin on the social networking model. The company creates password-protected Web sites for apartment buildings and housing developments, allowing residents to post pictures and profiles of themselves, share information about favorite local eateries and gripe about slow elevators and peeling paint.
“I like the idea a lot,” said Charlene Li, an analyst with Forrester Research, a consulting firm. “Living in the same building means you tend to share the same socioeconomic background and interests, and giving people information on things like where to eat and where to shop makes it very, very relevant.”
Ms. Li said her only reservations about the idea are that its appeal may be limited to big cities, and that LifeAt could be hard-pressed to generate many local advertising sales on its own, as most local businesses are not accustomed to buying online ads. Rather, she said, it would probably have to distribute ads for companies like Google and share commissions.
Matthew Goldstein, LifeAt’s chief operating officer, said the company is only now completing its advertising strategy. For now, the company, based in Brooklyn, is surviving on the roughly $6,000 it receives from each building that signs up for the service. It does not charge the buildings yearly fees.
More than 335 buildings have joined since LifeAt began in March. About 600 more buildings are scheduled to introduce LifeAt Web sites by year’s end. The company does not currently share ad revenues with the buildings, but Mr. Goldstein said that could change.
Among buildings with LifeAt Web sites, Mr. Goldstein said, residents of 64 percent of the units have created personal pages. Property managers, who give residents login and password information, also use the sites to post news about maintenance work and vacancies.
The profile pages created by residents are similar to those on other online social networks. Users post descriptions and pictures of themselves on personal pages, along with pictures of their friends in the building. In the Marketplace section, users can post free classified ads for old furniture, appliances andbaby-sitting services, and rate local eateries and businesses.
Several months ago, Tara Brooke, a childbirth counselor who lives in a 300-unit apartment building in Lower Manhattan, posted an ad for her service, Power of Birth, on the building’s LifeAt Web site. She received so many responses that she opened an office in SoHo and hired more workers. “The ad was a lot more personal because it’s where you live,” Ms. Brooke said.
The personal connections made through the site have been more superficial, Ms. Brooke said, although she acknowledged that it has helped her become friendly with more neighbors. “I’m not single, but if I was, I’d definitely be on there looking for a date,” she said. “It has that MySpace feel to it, but it’s much more intimate because you actually know these people are within reach.”
LifeAt is not the first to try this approach, but it appears to be the first to generate much money from it. Since late 2004, MeetTheNeighbors.org, a for-profit company based in Manhattan, has operated a social networking service for apartment dwellers.
That site, which is free, has about 15,000 users, and last year began serving residents of Boston, London and Dublin. Jared Nissim, the company’s founder, runs the site as a sidelight to his primary business, the Lunch Club, which helps strangers meet.
Mr. Nissim said some buildings have considerably more active Web sites than others, thanks mostly to the efforts of volunteers in the building who are responsible for managing the content of the site. “It may be one of the flaws of our system that it relies on one primary contact to get the ball rolling,” he said.
By contrast, each building on the LifeAt service is overseen by a company representative, who spends a few days logging neighborhood services and restaurants into the site before it makes it debut. Everything but the forum postings are screened for inappropriate content by LifeAt employees.
As with any online forum, those on LifeAt can devolve into rant sessions, which is why some property managers asked Mr. Goldstein to discontinue that part of the service for their sites. “But one developer heard the residents were just putting up a Yahoo blog behind his back instead, so they decided to keep it open so they could be proactive about things,” Mr. Goldstein said.
Alan D. Lev, president of the Belgravia Group, a residential development company based in Chicago, recently introduced its first LifeAt site for a 400-unit condominium on North Lake Shore Drive, in Chicago. Mr. Lev said the service is well-suited to the people in their mid-20s who live in the building.
“I think it’s very important for them to be able to go on there and be able to interact amongst the residents, and see all the restaurants and places to go,” Mr. Lev said. “And it allows them to converse with the management company more easily, so there’s no pent-up anger about what might be going on with the building.”
Others have experimented with social networking Web sites aimed at city residents without intending to make money. I-Neighbors.org is a site set up by Keith N. Hampton, a sociologist at Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, to study the role that Web sites can play in strengthening offline social ties.
Mr. Hampton said that I-Neighbors continues to grow, with 45,000 people now using the free service. He said, however, that people in apartment buildings generally do not pursue social connections with their neighbors.
“They’re younger people who move more, have no children and they’re early in their careers,” he said. “They tend to be less interested in the people who live around them, and more interested in their own social networks.”
The one exception to that, Mr. Hampton said, is New York, “where availability of housing makes people live in apartment buildings who may otherwise not.”
“That said, it sounds like LifeAt is having some nice success,” Mr. Hampton said. “But in terms of having an impact on the communication among residents and their ability to build new social ties, the apartment building model will have limited success.”
Source: New York Times