Log on to the local network

Shortly after moving into their new home in Battersea, southwest London, in 2008, Rupert Jermyn, 33, and his wife, Gail, 30, returned from dinner with friends to discover that they had been burgled. Waiting for police to arrive, they wondered whether to warn their neighbours and ask if they had seen anything, but they felt awkward knocking on strangers’ doors.

It occurred to them that there must be an easier way, and they came up with the idea of a social network designed specifically for local communities. Soon after, Rupert mentioned the idea to his brother-in-law, Matt Boyes, 33, whose background is in IT. Boyes was smitten. After consulting his wife, he resigned from his job and threw all his energy into creating the site.

Local websites, of course, are nothing new. Residents’ associations and other neighbourhood groups have been around for decades, and in recent years many have set up blogs or used sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Meetup to communicate with each other.

Streetlife, however, is different. On signing up, members decide whether to join at street level or over a wider area; by changing the settings, they control how much information they receive, the locations they’re interested in and what to share about themselves. Even if nobody else has joined up in their street, they can start posting to the forums at once and wait for others to find them — although it works better if friends also join.

Streetlife launches nationwide today, but it went live last year for a 12-month trial in Wandsworth, southwest London (under the initial name of Streetbook). In that period, it accumulated an active community of 8,000 members, who used the site to form neighbourhood-watch groups and social clubs, arrange street parties and get recommendations for tradesmen, baby-sitters or dentists.

As well as news and information, the site’s members exchange skills and possessions. “One announced recently that she didn’t have space for a compost heap, but wanted to get rid of her vegetable peelings,” says Nina Whittaker, Street­life’s head of community. “So someone else said, ‘Why not bring them round to me?’”

Many people join tentatively, with a polite message saying hello to their neighbours — but soon they’re airing issues they care passionately about. Now the site is being used for all sorts of community purposes, including a campaign to save a library threatened with closure. Another group of residents, led by Mercedes Bell, 31, a Canadian-born entrepreneur, decided to start regular litter-picking sessions, followed by tea and cakes. Rosie Frazer, 32, an advertising executive from nearby Earlsfield, received a flyer about the site in the autumn. She logged in to receive weekly newsletters, but didn’t get actively involved until recently. Her community garden group needed “windowsill gardeners” to help sow seeds — so she posted a request and, within a week, five keen neighbours got in touch.

“People are not as close as they used to be,” says Dianne Meyer, who was one of them. “It’s a perfect way of bringing people together who would otherwise have remained behind closed doors.”

Not everyone brings that level of commitment, of course. “We have some who log on every day and are very active,” Whittaker says, “and lots of more passive users who just like to hear what is going on in their area.”

Streetlife is free for local residents, but local businesses can pay an annual membership fee for the right to send special offers to residents within a 2km radius. “It’s a great way for small businesses to give their brand a personality and show they care about local issues,” Boyes says. “It’s also a targeted, afford­able and environmentally friendly alternative to leafleting.

“We see Streetlife playing a crucial role in helping to preserve local high streets, supporting small businesses and services that are valued by communities up and down the country.”

Site specific:

Ecomodo.com and Streetbank.com both offer a platform for neighbours to share resources (such as a lawn mower) or skills (French lessons, perhaps), usually for a fee.Landshare.net, backed by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, has brought together 59,000 people who have either a garden or gardening skills and the time to use them. A similar site is Growyourneighboursown.org.uk.

They’re not all tiny start-ups, either. The property portal Rightmove is offering would-be homebuyers a warts-and-all account of the areas that interest them through a new spin-off, Rightmoveplaces.co.uk.

In each case, the sites are only as good as the people on them — sheer numbers and the energy that individuals put into membership. Critical mass can take time to achieve: even eBay had only a small number of buyers and sellers in its early years.

781 words. First published 20 March 2011. © Times Newspapers Ltd.