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updated 5/23/2013 9:47:46 AM ET 2013-05-23T13:47:46

Finding a babysitter for Saturday night can be tough in neighborhoods where people rarely know one another's names. But that's changing, thanks to Nextdoor, a local social network designed to connect neighbors.

Over the past year or so, more than 12,600 neighborhoods in 50 states have joined Nextdoor, and around 1 million messages are posted to the site every day. Until now, members relied largely on computers to access the network, but starting today (May 23) Nextdoor is available as a free app for iPhone and iPad.

Before the app launched, important posts could be delayed, Nirav Tolia, co-founder of Nextdoor, told TechNewsDaily. "Say I saw some suspicious activity, I would have to rush back to my computer to post it. No more. I can take a photo on my phone and post it on the spot."

Tolia described one user who posted a photo of an intruder taken by a surveillance camera. Later, another resident of that user's complex saw a man who resembled the photo and snapped a quick picture. Together, the photos gave the local police enough information to start an investigation. [See also:  How Social Network Helped Protect Neighborhood ]

But Nextdoor is much more than a digital neighborhood watch. In fact, in a survey of the more than 30 million messages posted to the site over a typical month, only 20 percent concerned crime and safety, while 26 percent were recommendations, including good handymen, tailors and babysitters.

"In that respect, Nextdoor is the  Yelp  for neighborhoods," Tolia said. How people use Nextdoor varies from the useful, such as offering a simple way to meet neighbors, to the essential. For example, one neighborhood in Oklahoma City is using the app to find clothing for a family who lost everything in the recent tornado.

The Nextdoor app consists of a newsfeed that contains messages from neighbors and, frequently, from city and  law enforcement  officials who choose to participate. The app also includes an inbox for exchanging direct messages with neighbors.

We asked Tolia about possible problems with difficult neighbors. Nextdoor does offer a mute feature, which prevents a neighbor's complaints from reaching another's newsfeed. (And blocked neighbors won't receive an alert when they've been muted.)

However, Tolia said there are rarely problems of this kind, which he attributes to the fact that people have to use their real names and addresses. While users can flag messages, very few do. In fact, Tolia estimated that fewer than 10 messages in a million are ever flagged.

"Treating neighbors badly doesn't give anyone any benefits, so people don't do it," he said. "The result has been a very civil community."

The Nextdoor app is available for free from the App Store on iPhone and iPod touch or at  Nextdoor.com, where you can also check to see if your neighborhood has already joined the network.

Follow Leslie Meredith  @lesliemeredith. Follow us  @TechNewsDaily, on  Facebook  or on  Google+.

© 2012 TechNewsDaily

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