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Start-ups try a different approach to social networking

This week saw the launch of two new social networks with very different ambitions. One seeks to get back to the basics of what first made Facebook successful, and the other seeks to replace Facebook by offering a more private and user-friendly alternative.

The back-to-basics network is called Nextdoor and it essentially consists of a series of individual online groups, with each one representing a small town or local neighborhood. The idea is for neighbors to get to know each other and form a common bond, which will hopefully translate to a better life in the real world.

To be a member of Nextdoor, you must register with your real name and real physical address. Nextdoor verifies members’ addresses by sending a postcard to the address with a unique code, making a phone call to a listed number at that address, linking the person to a billing address from a credit card they provide, or by providing an invitation from a previously verified neighbor.

If this approach seems a little over-the-top, the Nextdoor founders believe it’s essential to create an environment of trust. “We were inspired by the early days of Facebook,” said founder Nirav Tolia. “When they launched, they required university-specific e-mail addresses to allow people to access university-specific networks within Facebook. That creates a little friction up front but ultimately it allows people to feel more comfortable.”

Once signed up, members can share information about themselves and the local neighborhood. Whether you’re looking for a lost cat, organizing a street party, or just trying to find a reliable plumber, the idea is that Nextdoor will help bring back a sense of community and make neighborhoods safer and happier places to live.

The other new network, called Unthink, takes a more typical approach to social networking but with one important difference. Billing itself as the “anti-Facebook,” it pledges to operate a more “open and honest” social network, where the privacy of members’ data is sacrosanct and the interests of advertisers take a back seat.

CEO Natasha Dedis said the idea for Unthink came to her when her son wanted to sign up for Facebook and she read the terms of service. She saw that almost everything on Facebook is geared towards providing advertisers with the information they need to effectively pitch their products. On Unthink, members can still communicate with advertisers but they do on their own terms, not the terms of the network or the sponsoring companies.

On Unthink, your page is split into four sections, each with its own set of privacy controls. The first section is your blog with your public information. Next comes your more private social content,  followed by your lifestyle section, and your professional info. In covering all these areas, Unthink is hoping to combine elements not just from Facebook but from Twitter and LinkedIn as well.

Despite their ambition launches, each new network is relying on a big assumption that may turn out to be false: In Nextdoor’s case, that we want to get to know our neighbors better, and in Unthink’s case, that we want our online activity to be more private. While we may care about our neighbors, we appear to be less concerned about our privacy, a point that Facebook has proven time and time again.

Both Nextdoor and Unthink are free to join, although Unthink is currently in limited beta testing and requires an invitation.

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