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With Front Porch Forum, Internet Goes Local

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2015-02-25

By Dale Mackey, Daily Yonder: http://www.dailyyonder.com/front-porch-forum-internet-goes-local/2015/02...

A Vermont-based social media platform helps residents communicate with neighbors. In the process, participants feel more connected to each other and their communities, says the project’s founder.

At a time when rural folks are using social media to connect with people around the globe, Vermont’s digital Front Porch Forum has a different goal: to help residents communicate with the neighbor down the road.

Front Porch Forum, a hyper-local social-media platform, is operating in 200 towns in Vermont, says founder Michael Wood-Lewis of Burlington. About a third of the residents in each of these communities are using the system, he said.

The forum serves as a place for people to share information, plan neighborhood gatherings, promote local businesses and connect with their neighbors.  But Wood-Lewis says there’s another benefit.

“There’s a somewhat hidden effect that turns out to be the most powerful: over time, people start to feel different about their community.  They start to feel more connected to their neighborhoods and in the loop about what’s going on.”

Front Porch Forum differs from other social media like Facebook or Twitter:

  • It’s focused on one locality – users only interact with others in their individual towns and communities.
  • It’s simple – messages are delivered in plain text emails.
  • And it’s transparent –participants are identified by their full names and the streets they live on.

Those features make it uniquely relevant to each community, Wood-Lewis says. The system fosters civility and is accessible to everyone, from neighborhood teenagers to senior citizens, he said.

The seeds for Front Porch Forum were planted back in 2000, before the phrase “social media” entered our daily lexicon. Michael and Valerie Wood-Lewis decided they wanted to make connections with their neighbors in their new home of Burlington, Vermont.  Michael created a simple email list, which allowed neighbors to share information about missing pets, block parties and items they wanted to sell or give away.  Each evening for six years, he would compile the five or six emails he received that day and send them in an email to subscribers. Nearly everyone in their 500-person community eventually joined. 

“It just took off in a way I didn’t anticipate,” Wood-Lewis says,  “People were using it for things like borrowing tools or finding a lost pet, but then they started using it for more impressive things, like rallying around a family where someone’s sick with cancer.  Someone met their future spouse. People were finding old lost school friends who lived three blocks away and didn’t realize it.  I was just kind of stunned.”

In 2006, Wood-Lewis decided to leave his job and devote his energy into expanding the service across Chittenden County, and Front Porch Forum was officially born.   Now, the forum’s 12-person staff serves the entire state of Vermont.

Vermonters continue to use the forum in unexpected ways.  The Westford Food Shelf began in 2010 when a child started asking his mother for extra food for his lunch box. She realized her child was sharing his food with classmates who weren’t getting enough to eat and recognized the need for a local food pantry.  She turned to Front Porch Forum, where she found a partner, a steering committee, sources for donations and volunteers.  “They didn’t use any of the conventional means to put this thing together,” Wood-Lewis said. “It was a great example of a community recognizing a need and turning to itself to solve that problem.”

Paul Costello, executive director of partnering organization Vermont Council on Rural Development, recalls how the forum was used after tropical storm Irene devastated homes and communities across Vermont in 2011.  People offered places to sleep as well as services and tools like sump pumps and chainsaws. Local college students went to the forum to understand where and how they could help.

Costello says he has been surprised with the ways people use the forum.  Recently, he saw a young mother ask if anyone in her community had extra breast milk they could share with her infant. “I was struck that this electronic media is helping neighbors share something so intimate and so incredibly precious,” he said. “That’s transformational, that this media is bringing together these two young women.”

A quick glance at testimonials from the Front Porch Forum website shows the diverse ways people are interacting:

  • "To the person who forwarded my request for a native French speaker to vet some writing, many many thanks. This is going to work out well, as the person you referred seems to be ideally qualified for the small job I had in mind."
  • "I wanted to say thank you for the offers of crutches and support. I found a pair nearly immediately."
  • "In a brilliant moment of genius, the Middlesex school board has decided to take advantage of this forum to get a more representative picture of what the taxpayers of Middlesex feel is most important in developing the budget..."
  • "Thanks to the wonderful crowd of neighbors who helped us move. It was humbling and heartwarming to have 36 people show up, on the weekend after Thanksgiving, in response to our Front Porch Forum posting, and move all our things down the street into our new home in an hour and a half!"

The forum reminds Wood-Lewis of what it was like when he grew up. When his mother was diagnosed with cancer, neighbors brought casseroles and asked how she was doing.

“That was the kind of community I grew up in, and I was seeing that my kids weren’t going to have that kind of benefit," he said. "Vermont has a wonderful sense of community already.  Front Porch Forum has just been able to accelerate that and help those connections grow.”