Vermont's Front Porch Forum is brilliantly successful at putting the Net at the service of communities
We would recommend Douglas Rushkoff’s Team Human podcast on any week, but this one in particularly clicks with so many of A/UK agendas.
The second half of this week’s episode (starting at 57.45) features an interview with Micheal Wood-Lewis, founder of Front Porch Forum, an online community service which has been wildly successful in connecting up communities in the state of Vermont, in the US, since the mid-2000s.
In dialogue with our post earlier this week on design ethics, the secret of FPF seems to be a deliberate limiting of the interactive attractions of modern social media, and a bias towards people meeting in the real world.
Wood-Lewis begins by telling the story of coming to his new town in Vermont, Burlington, and seeing a bumper sticker that he thoroughly objected to politically. Then saw an advert in a local store for a bench wood-saw for sale - exactly what he needed to begin his Vermont life! Of course this turned out to belong to the owner of the bumper sticker…
So he plumped up the courage, rapped on the door, and began a relationship with someone of the basis of belonging to the neighbourhood, and shared human fates (primarily illnesses and children). The point he took for this was that neighbourliness can be its own reward.
This compelled the creation of Front Porch Forum - and the intuitive decisions they made about its design. Says Wood-Lewis:
It’s a place for connections to be made among neighbours, as a starting point and a catalyst for face to face conversation. We will get not-infrequent feedback from new users who say, your platform isn't optimised for online discussion, let me give you some tips!". We listen, we thank them, sometimes we learn something, but we invaribly say that's not what we're optimising for.
We want this to be a place where conversations start, are catalysed, and then it goes offline and onto the sidewalk. All things digital can pull an enterprise like this in an unproductive direction. We've resisted that.
We have 150,000 members in Vermont, which has 250,000 households - so half your neighbours will be using FPF. Online, there’s no rabbit hole you fall into here, no YouTube video recommendations. It’s 10 minutes a day of postings from your neighbourhood… You see who’s dog is lost, who’s got a yard sale, who’s got a concern about syringes found at the park, who’s running for office, who things the telecom services could be better. Then you follow up on it - or you don’t. And tomorrow, it’s the same thing.
It’s like a daily e-newsletter for people, it lands on their front porches, same time every evening. We don’t do threaded conversations - we want to be a trigger for real-world conversations. People know more people, they have richer networks of neighbours, once they start using our forum.
As to how this actually works, Wood-Lewis tells the story of when Hurricane Alice hit Vermont, devastating communities on an irregular basis. After the event, Wood-Lewis was told by local activists that the communities which had been on Front Porch Forum for a full year before the hurricane hit bounced back a lot quicker than the communities who hadn’t.
“The Forum had been a fertilizer for local networks - for parent-teacher meetings, soccer clubs, 4th July celebrations, all of this had started up”, relates Wood-Lewis. “So when the hurricane hit, and people’s mobile phones and internet went down, these real-world networks had already existed. People knew where to go, and who to check in on, who might have a chain-saw to clear the road”.
The FPF blog has a very direct current entry from an enthusiast who identifies what they’ve gotten out of the forum (as part of a funding drive)
Bought a chair.
Got a free fridge.
Learned about the town forest.
Gave away baby gear.
Bought a desk.
Got a free music stand.
Bought a suitcase.
Re-homed my houseplants.
Found out about a garage sale.
Got some wicked awesome leaves. (Thank you Dave T!)
Publicized many events for The Coop and Forest School.
Learned about Saturday morning meditation.
Found out a hundred dogs were lost. And found!
Learned about fun stuff to do at the library.
Got a free wool blanket to make a sleeping bag.
Learned about the town plan.
Complained about squirrels.
Was reminded to check for ticks.
Gave away some tools.
Bought some mud boots.
In the New Republic, asking “can a public sphere worth living in ever be built online?”, Micah White notes that:
Front Porch Forum isn’t the only example of an organization that uses digital tools to build consensus and drive policy solutions: Platforms like SeeClickFix, OurCommonPlace, PlaceSpeak, and Neighborland have all been founded within the last decade or so to build a digital public sphere. Each can claim user bases in the hundreds of thousands. Unlike Facebook, they aren’t trying to vacuum up all the data they can and monopolize people’s attention in order to make billions in online advertising.
…In the same way people need banks to hold their money safely and to help it circulate, creating businesses and jobs, they also need trustworthy online digital forums to hold their social identities and help foster beneficial connections between friends, neighbors, and the larger society.
The question Americans now face is for whom and on what terms will those forums be built and how should they be maintained? What platforms like Front Porch Forum demonstrate is that there are many ways to answer these questions, and the effects of online public forums do not have to be the ones lawmakers are now grappling with thanks to Facebook’s focus on growth over every other value.
More here. We would only further note: a question not just Americans face.