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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 February 2019

‘Dubai’s mini-Facebook’ Expatconnect.com gives you access to people in your neighbourhood

The free-to-join social networking platform allows users to build “micro communities” or groups based on neighbourhood, nationality, profession and interests.
Dubai-based entrepreneur Violet Stier, co-founder of expatconnect.com, drew from her own experiences in the city when developing the social networking site. Pawan Singh / The National
Dubai-based entrepreneur Violet Stier, co-founder of expatconnect.com, drew from her own experiences in the city when developing the social networking site. Pawan Singh / The National

You see them briefly in the lift every morning and exchange a quick smile, but how many of us count our neighbours among our friends?

A new UAE community website, expatconnect.com, hopes to change that by helping expatriates in Dubai – both new and longtime – find friends within their community and neighbourhood.

It took Violet Stier, from Germany, and her Hungarian business partner, Judith Kovacs, two years to develop the website, which went live in November. The free-to-join social networking platform – dubbed “Dubai’s Mini Facebook” by its 12,000 members – allows users to build “micro communities” or groups based on neighbourhood, nationality, profession and interests. Once registered, members can request to befriend people within their groups of choice and engage in private discussions through messages and live chat. Meetings are held every month to allow members to mingle and network.

“Our aim with the website cannot be better illustrated than by the experience of two members we met at a recent meetup in the city,” says Stier, who handles a team of five in Dubai, while Kovacs moves between Dubai and Europe to look after the technical team that runs the website from there.

“A member who has just moved to Dubai was struggling to make friends in his neighbourhood. He posted a message [on the site’s] neighbourhood group and found someone to connect with in his building. They were both at the meetup, which was fantastic.

“Dubai is such a transient place. Even if you have lived here for more than 10 years, you feel like a new expat because you lose friends all the time. So the idea is to make it easier to find new friends,” says Stier who moved to the UAE 11 years ago.

The founders, who met while working in the real-estate sector in Dubai, and bonded over a ­passion for horse riding, drew from their own experience as ­expatriates.

“When I moved here, I was looking at all sorts of forums for answers, but they were disorganised and that wasn’t helpful. I knew there was a missing link there,” says Stier.

“We’ve been expats for a long time, but it’s still common to face issues of meeting new people, especially if you want to meet residents from your home country.

The website is tailored to deal with common problems highlighted by expatriates during an extensive research-based survey. Key issues include “a disconnect with neighbours” and “finding residents of the same ­nationality”.

“A lot of the respondents said that in the fast-paced life here and with all communication online, the human touch is missing,” says Stier. “You live in high-rise buildings, in these vertical villages, but you don’t know ­anyone.”

She adds that expatriates from smaller communities find it hard to find people who share their culture.

“People come here because it is a melting pot of cultures,” says Stier. “But, at the same time, they also want to meet people who share their language and traditions. The website allows members to join groups and create meetups based on nationality.”

Unlike other networking sites, expatconnect offers members a targeted, uncluttered newsfeed.

“Facebook, for example, isn’t filtered and you get all sorts of updates,” explains Stiers. “Our neighbourhood community feature is unique in the sense that if you join a community, your newsfeed will show events that only pertain to it.”

She also points out that while other platforms are geared towards maintaining existing relationships, expatconnect.com is all about meeting new people.

“We want members to make new connections in a secure atmosphere. You wouldn’t just add anyone on Facebook, but here you get to know people while not having to share personal details.”

Next on the agenda are an app that will be released this year, creating a marketplace for members, and expanding services to other emirates, especially Abu Dhabi.

“We’ve seen an interest in Abu Dhabi, as well,” says Stiers. “We will gradually open up to residents there.”

Widen your social circle on Expatconnect.com

I’m a social-network junkie. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, expatwoman.com, meetup.com – I’m a member of all these sites. And although I might not always be active on them all, I find that they work as a great go-to for options when my social plans go south and I want last-minute ideas for things to do.

So when expatconnect.com was launched, joining it was a no-brainer. I quickly filled out details about my social and professional background and where I live. Any personal details you decide to share are made public to the members of the groups you join, but you can reveal as much or as little as you like to begin with, before being placed into preset “communities” based on your personal and ­professional interests.

Based on the details I entered, groups that popped up included The Indian Community, Book Club, Cultural Explorers, Fitness, Journalism and Information, and I joined them all, although an option to see all the groups I could potentially join would be more beneficial. Sadly, I couldn’t find my neighbourhood listed ­anywhere, apparently because the website is still a work in progress, but the creators can be contacted if you’d like your area added.

The uncluttered interface is easy to use and alerts about meetups and community discussions pop up in your newsfeed. The best part? Unlike other social websites, you are not spammed with unnecessary forum discussions or information from groups you are not interested in.

You can also send direct messages to any member in a group and live chat with them when they are online.

I’ve already put my name down for a yoga meetup this weekend.

Updated: February 15, 2016 04:00 AM

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