The social networking site Nextdoor connects neighbors to swap stories about what’s going on near them. Typically, the conversation centers on finding baby sitters and lost dogs, but when Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, the site became a place where neighbors could find who had food, shelter or even a rescue boat.
And that sort of fulfills the vision of Nextdoor CEO Nirav Tolia, the Texas native who co-founded the site in the hopes that it could re-create the feel of community closeness that he felt growing up in Odessa. While he couldn’t know exactly how users would come to rely on it in natural disasters, Tolia said even from the beginning, he and his partners had high hopes for its potential.
“I think we always had a dream that we could be a part of something that would bring out the best kind of human behavior in neighbors,” Tolia said.
Speaking from his office in San Francisco, Tolia, 45, said he had been following how events unfolded in his home state and was “humbled” that Nextdoor could play a role in bringing people together in times of crisis.
Founded in 2010, the site has seen explosive growth in recent years, and is now in almost 80 percent of neighborhoods in the country. Users sign in to a private group that has a bulletin board where anyone can post a neighborhood issue.
During Hurricane Harvey, stranded homeowners in Houston neighborhoods were widely using Nextdoor to post pictures of damage and share information about road closures. But there were also cases where the site helped connect people with boats to neighbors who were desperate to escape rising waters.
Company officials say Nextdoor saw five times as much member activity as usual from the affected areas, and recently, membership has spiked more than 650 percent in those areas. The site also partners with local law enforcement and other agencies, who can post to neighborhood sites. In Houston, local agencies such as the Houston Police Department and the Office of Emergency Management shared nearly 700 Harvey-related posts with residents on Nextdoor, the company said.
Tolia said the company has given over space usually reserved for ads on the site to agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration so they can post alerts. There is also a Red Cross button so members can easily donate. Nextdoor also plans to announce new features soon that will help neighbors stay informed during natural disasters and other crises.
“I think what we’ve learned is that people will do really incredible things to help each other in times of crisis, and we’ve gotta invest more around tools to help them do these things,” he said.
Tolia’s Texas ties run deep. His parents, who emigrated from India, have lived in Odessa for 43 years but plan a move to Dallas as soon as his father, a physician, is set to retire. He also has a brother who lives in Dallas’ Lakewood neighborhood and family members in the Houston area.
So the way Texans responded to neighbors in need on Nextdoor didn’t seem to surprise him.
“Texas has always been for Nextdoor one of our strongest markets, and we think the reason is not because of anything special we’ve done. It’s because the people of Texas, they are neighborly. It’s part of what makes the state great,” he said.