Back in the days, when people moved, they introduced themselves to their new neighbors. Nowadays, anonymity rules – especially in metropolises. German neighborhood platform nebenan.de aims to change all that by connecting urbanites across stairways and sidewalks.

Two years ago, Christian Vollmann decided to ring the doorbell of his Berlin neighbor. Just like that, with no real reason. They didn’t really know each other, although both had been living side by side for years.

Vollmann is the mind behind successful online platforms like eDarling or myVideo, so it’s part of his job to approach others and get them excited about his ideas. Yet approaching his neighbor felt quite strange.

Vollmann, however, went through with it and rang the bell because he no longer wanted to pass the residents of his building – or local area – without a second glance. Without a quick hello or at least a friendly nod. They had been ignoring each other long enough.

Nebenan.de is active all across Germany

Reactions were positive – it turned out that Vollmann was not the only one who was missing something in everyday life. And since the serial founder constantly tries to think of new ways to bring like-minded people together – on- and offline – he decided to set up a digital portal to facilitate the exchange with others in our immediate surroundings.

At the same time, such a portal can counteract one of the key challenges of increasing urbanization: the growing loneliness – especially among the elderly – despite being surrounded by more and more people.

Vollmann’s positive doorbell adventure gave rise to the neighborhood platform nebenan.de – available across Germany since mid-December 2015, after its launch in Berlin.

It’s a unique digital tool for bringing local people together. And today’s online click culture – which lowers the bar to collecting friends – certainly has the potential to connect neighbors the fast and easy way.

neighborhood platforn nebenan.de city greetings
German neighborhood platform nebenan.de is a digital tool for bringing local people together.
Photo: Paul Bradbury / Getty Images

Like Facebook – but really quite different

At first glance, nebenan.de might resemble Facebook, but underneath the hood, it’s really quite different. While the popular social network is mostly about virtual closeness and connection, nebenan.de relies on the opposite: geographical proximity.

A further major difference: Unlike Facebook, where it’s all about ego, nebenan.de focusses on the community. People don’t try to amass a huge collection of likes, friends, and followers, but instead look for a few, reliable friends and helpers.

nebenan.de profiles swap selfies for portraits and information on “people’s ideas and skills to enrich their neighborhood,” according to co-founder Ina Brunk.

She joins managing director Till Behnke – founder of the charity platform Betterplace.org – and Christian Vollmann’s brother Michael – formerly member of the board of social innovation platform Ashoka – as part of the experienced nebenan.de team.

Categories range from “share & help“ to “free giveaways”

Meanwhile, nebenan.de users do find plenty of tried-and-tested social media staples on the platform: Pre-defined categories like “lost & found”, “share & help” or “free giveaways” to facilitate exchange across the hall or on the street that can be found side by side with events, e. g. yardsales, and individual groups on specific topics like “fathers on paternity leave.”

Yet before the interaction starts, districts need to be set up on the platform – and the process couldn’t be easier: Whoever wants to start an area of exchange just applies online, stating the intended boundaries. Vollmann and his team check if the area is already covered or part of a different suggested district before they give their final go.

If the intended area already exists, they let the user know; otherwise they help them build up their own community by providing several tools ranging from online links and e-mail invites to flyers for shared homes and hallways.

If two neighborhood members get involved, nebenan.de even distributes their invites by direct mail. “This usually activates around 100 people per 6,000 residents,” adds Vollmann.

They don’t consider themselves in competition with other social networks, according to Ina Brunk, “instead, we complement them.” But when it comes down to it, nebenan.de is definitely a reaction of sorts to the likes of Facebook – it wants to help people make friends and connections beyond the virtual realm.

Header image: Hero images / Getty Images