Facebook groups are a key connector for many people, and have become even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 1.8 billion users now engaging in Groups every month. They're also an essential tool for local communities - according to a recent Facebook survey, 38% of Facebook group members look to connect with people in their local area through groups.
That, to Facebook, spells opportunity, and this week, The Social Network has launched a new test of an option called 'Neighborhoods', which aims to better connect more people to others within their immediate vicinity.
As you can see in this screenshot, provided by Leon Grigg of Grigg Digital (and shared by Matt Navarra), users in Calgary, Canada, are now seeing this new prompt to connect with their neighbors and discover more about local happenings within the app.
Tap on the 'Get Started' prompt and you're taken through to the new Neighborhoods tool.
The sequence takes you through a set-up process for a Neighborhoods profile, which first starts with confirming your location to ensure you're in the right local group.
You then set-up a specific Neighborhoods profile, separate from your main Facebook presence, which you can use to connect to others in your local community.
That could be particularly helpful during the pandemic - for example, Facebook has already added new tools to connect users with local people seeking help via its Community Help Hub, which it rolled out back in May as part of its initial COVID response.
Neighborhoods could provide similar assistance in this respect, while also helping to keep local communities connected - which could become increasingly important given that so many local newspapers and publications have been forced to shut down due to the impacts of the pandemic.
Facebook provided this statement to TechCrunch on the new test:
"More than ever, people are using Facebook to participate in their local communities. To help make it easier to do this, we are rolling out a limited test of Neighborhoods, a dedicated space within Facebook for people to connect with their neighbors."
It makes sense, it aligns with usage trends, and could become a more important element within the Facebook experience. However the timing of the new test is interesting.
As several observers have noted, the functionality is similar to social app Nextdoor, which has around 27 million monthly active users, and has seen a significant surge in interest during the pandemic.
Nextdoor's rise has been so significant that the company is now looking to launch an initial public offering, which could come as soon as next month.
It would be a shame if Facebook were to, you know, negate your whole business model by introducing the same functionality within its app, which has reach to almost 3 billion users, a significant advantage in the space.
Some have also noted the audacity here - just yesterday, the US Justice Department filed a complaint against Google for violating antitrust laws through its dominance of search. The argument, in this case, is that Google has essentially quashed competition by buying preferential placement, making it the default search app on so many surfaces that it's almost impossible for other search engines to compete.
Which is somewhat similar to what Facebook is doing here, replicating the functionality of a popular local connection tool within its much larger app, with a view to effectively shutting Nextdoor out of the market.
From a business standpoint, that makes perfect sense, protecting your turf, maximizing potential, etc. But given the discussions around the activity of the big tech players in dominating their markets, and crushing competitors, it's at least a little concerning.
Right now, Facebook is only running Neighborhoods in a limited test, so it's not taking a big step straight away with the tool. But given the usage stats of Facebook's existing local connection options, it could, eventually, spell trouble for Nextdoor.
We'll know more if indeed Facebook does decide to proceed with a full roll-out.
It makes sense, it's in alignment with Facebook's mission. But it may cause more conflict in the tech sector. More than it's worth? We'll have to wait and see.