But Tali Saar and Gil Lederman, two computer programmers originally from Israel who recently moved to Palo Alto, are trying to revive that world.
The two recently launched Palo Alto Rooster, an online sharing network where people can ask for or offer help to their neighbors, whether something material — perhaps two children's beds that have been outgrown and need a new home — or experiential, such as a beginning runner looking for a jogging partner.
"The world today and how the social structure has changed — we have all these social networks and we have hundreds of friends (online). But everybody always says how it only pulls us apart, and we only find ourselves in front of our computer all day," said Saar. "We thought, 'This is what has happened with technology, but this is not what we believe to be the nature of people.'"
She thinks it's in people's nature to connect and be a part of community. She and Lederman felt that urge when they moved to Palo Alto from the East Coast recently.
"Being new, we don't know a lot of people. There's a lot of adjustments to make and preparations and getting things together and ... if we just knew our neighbors or had some friends around us, that could have been so helpful."
What they were missing was someone — or somewhere — to ask for help moving a mattress, to offer no-longer-needed moving boxes, to make real-world connections.
So they built Palo Alto Rooster out of their Crescent Park home. It's essentially an email blast that Palo Altans can sign up for (at www.paloaltorooster.com). Participants will receive up to two emails a week (akin to a digital rooster announcing calls from around the neighborhood, Saar likes to think). Registered Rooster users send offers or requests for help to Saar and Lederman, who will then publish up to five of them per email. Everything — registration and any exchanges done via Rooster — is free.
Summing up Rooster's philosophy, each email begins: "Ask for whatever you need, help whenever you can."
The first part follows the idea that Saar and Lederman have about providing people with a place to simply ask for things they need.
"We hope to give people the permission to ask," Lederman said. "It's something that we usually don't realize that we have."
Since they launched Rooster in November, Saar said hundreds of people have signed up (a total at the bottom of a recent email blast pegs it at 301).
Palo Alto resident Sandra Slater uses several online community networks that are in a similar vein as Rooster, such as Nextdoor (private neighborhood-specific social networks) and Yerdle (a website where users can give and receive material items for free).
"I'm really interested in the sharing economy and collaborative consumption and that kind of thing," she said.
In a recent Rooster email, she saw that a young woman needed a ride to Oakland. It happened to coincide with a day Slater was going to be driving there, so she decided to give her a ride.
"It was the first time I've given a ride to a stranger," Slater said. "It was fabulous. She was terrific. We had a wonderful conversation."
Though she also said she's trying to reduce her carbon footprint as much as possible — hence the ride sharing — it was more than that.
"I think it's ... also about the human interaction, which is really important."
This is exactly what Saar and Lederman are hoping for with Rooster, and what they said sets it apart from similar websites, like Yerdle, Freecycle or Craigslist, that focus on the exchange of material goods rather than person-to-person interactions.
"The posts (on Freecycle) are very anonymous and very, 'Here's what I have; here's what I need' and that's where the interactions stop. And we really want to create something more than that. So items definitely belong on Rooster, but a lot of other things do too."
Another very busy Palo Alto woman who "feels kind of guilty when she leaves her dog at home and the dog is alone for many hours," Saar said, posted on Rooster that she was looking for somebody to host her dog for a few hours.
"The person who responded was actually another woman whose dog has recently passed away," Saar said. "She loved the opportunity. She said, 'Of course, bring him over, and I'll be happy to do that.'"
Saar said she's not concerned about Rooster being unsafe; people can look each other up online and talk on the phone before meeting in person.
"We trust people to do that verification," she said.
But she said she would like to incorporate some sort of rating system in the future, so people can see what other users have used Rooster for and how it's been received. She said they'll work on making the Palo Alto network more robust before they consider expanding to other cities.
"What eventually we'd really like to see — maybe the product itself needs a little more development ... but we want to see people really meeting new people through that and as a result, we hope that the community will be able to do more and more things with each other; things that we never thought possible before and that you would never consider asking a stranger," Saar said. "But once the community is there and you trust it, you'll be able to ask for anything."