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Civic Tech and Engagement: How Front Porch Forum Makes Stronger Communities

BY Allison Fine and Sam Roudman | Thursday, January 15 2015

Valerie and Michael Wood-Lewis (Photo courtesy Michael Wood-Lewis)

The following is an excerpt from Matterness, Allison Fine’s new book about about leadership in a social world.

Like many newly married couples, Michael Wood-Lewis and his wife Valerie began thinking about where they wanted to raise their children in the late 1990s. They wanted a small community, one filled with neighborliness, where people were friendly, took care of one another, and were engaged in the schools and town affairs. If one didn’t mind the long winters, Burlington, VT, seemed the perfect fit, and, in 1998, they moved there.

Their first summer, living in a townhouse in the Five Sisters neighborhood, Michael and Valerie returned from a day out to find their neighbors packing up grills in the middle of the street.

Michael went up to a griller and asked, “What was this?”

“It was a block party,” the man answered.

“But we live on the block. How come we didn’t know about it?” Michael asked.

“Well, you will. It’ll take about ten years, and then you’ll just know.”

Michael and Valerie were frustrated that they weren’t getting to know their neighbors more. Valerie decided to do something about it and baked cookies for the neighbors. Rather than put them on paper plates, as Michael’s mother used to do in Indiana, she put them on dinner plates, the best way to ensure a return visit, she told Michael. Their neighbors were delighted to receive the treats; however, the plates didn’t come back.

People were moving in and out of Burlington, VT, as quickly as they were in every other part of the country, leaving neighbors in physical proximity to one another without any real personal or emotional connections. In addition, the changing economy made having two or three jobs to make ends meet the norm, significantly reducing the time people have during the day to bump into one another. Michael and Valerie wanted more from their community and felt instinctively that the mutual concern for one another and the sharing of resources and news, the fuel for sidewalk conversations, were all there just lying fallow, waiting for easier pathways to develop. In 2001, they began an email list for neighbors to share questions and concerns. There was one simple rule: No personal attacks. Attack the problem, Michael likes to say, not the person.

People began to share. My cat is lost. I need a babysitter Saturday night. Why isn’t the town fixing the sidewalk? Has anyone found my keys? My store is having a sale on jewelry this week. By 2006, Michael decided to make a full-time go of his email list by turning it into a website called the Front Porch Forum. The Forum organizes conversations by neighborhoods of up to about 1,000 residents.

Michael Wood-Lewis instinctively understood that the fewer strangers there were in his neighborhood, the more likely people are to share information and help one another. Michael created Front Porch Forum to turn his new hometown, Burlington, VT, from a collection of strangers into a community of neighbors.

Wood-Lewis doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of a neighborhood organizer, with his pressed khakis and a blue, button-down short-sleeved shirt with a pen neatly tucked into his shirt pocket where a pocket protector should have rested. He was trained as an engineer and has an MBA, but his life’s work turned into something quite different from those rigid endeavors.

Walking through the Five Sisters neighborhood in Burlington, VT, with Wood-Lewis was a study in keen observation. He noticed new cracks in the sidewalk and a small headstone dedicated to a recently passed opossum resting against the side of an elm tree on the grass near the street. That elderly man just hired some high school kids to pick apples from his tree while he’s away on vacation, he says, and that family over there just hired a new babysitter. Wood-Lewis isn’t a gossip; he is sharing information that has been posted on Front Porch Forum.

Running the Forum is a hands-on endeavor, with moderators choosing what they consider the most important postings and putting them at the top of the listing every day. Comments are screened for civility. Some of this activity has become automated; when a person posts too many times, it triggers an automated email suggesting that we all take turns to be heard (oh, that this could be implemented also at in-person meetings!).

Elected officials use the Forum to share agendas for upcoming meetings. Business owners share news and concerns. Posters can share ideas that they saw online from other towns (“We should try this recycling program they have in Yakima”). Some of the conversations can get heated. A post about a burglar spotted in a neighborhood that described him as a black teen triggered a two-week discussion on the appropriateness of using race in the description.

The conversations on the Forum change by neighborhood. In rural areas, the listings tend to be about pigs on the loose and bear sightings. In the Old North End, a low-income, blue-collar neighborhood, listings are largely about drugs and crime. The Forum isn’t a newspaper; it is a series of conversations that would have happened on local sidewalks or in coffee shops before we were all so busy during the day. The expectation is that someone will post information and others will respond in agreement or disagreement, with additional information, or with an offer to help.

There are 16,000 households in Burlington. Front Porch Forum has more than 15,000 Burlington users (some households have more than one account). Neither age, income, nor neighborhood has been a barrier for participation. In the summer of 2013, the site expanded to the entire New England region, with the help of a $300,000 infusion from the Vermont Council on Rural Development, drawn from federal disaster relief funds in the wake of Hurricane Irene, which devastated the state. Overall, the site has nearly 80,000 users in Vermont, out of the 260,000 households statewide.

I met several of Wood-Lewis’ neighbors and Forum users literally on his front-porch. None of them were native Vermonters. When they moved to Burlington, they all heard from local people that the best way to learn about what was happening was to join the Forum. Giselle, who moved to Burlington to attend the University of Vermont, said, “I lived in Boulder, CO, for three months, and it was really tough to meet people and find furniture. I don’t want to live like that.”

What makes the Forum work? I asked Heather. She said, “It’s a different experience from Facebook, where people are talking about themselves and posting pictures. It’s not creepy, like Craigslist can be. It’s not filled with spam. My Facebook friends are from other times in my life—college and high school. Front Porch Forum is right here and now.”

Users also mentioned the importance of people being known to one another by using their first and last names and their street name (although not their house number) as identifiers. This helps to reduce anonymous sniping. Being known online translates into being known on the street after a post (“Did you find someone to tend your garden when you’re away?”). Stuart Comstock-Gay, a member of the Forum in his tiny town of New Haven, VT, had a kiddie pool stolen from his backyard. He posted the news on the Forum. “It wasn’t important from a cost perspective,” he said. “It was just for the dogs to cool off in, but I wanted to post it on the Forum so that it was known to the community that this happened.”

What’s the big deal about a site with listings about sidewalk cracks and car break-ins? Every conversation on the Forum builds Matterness—a real sense of connection and engagement—between neighbors that, in turn, generates more trust between them. Trust turns into reciprocity on small issues like returning a set of lost keys, which then transforms into collective action around big issues, like a proposed condo development one block over. Michael said, “You start with lost cats, and then you end up with, ‘Let’s go to the planning board meeting.’”

(Cartoon courtesy of Michael Wood-Lewis)

A Conversation With Michael Wood-Lewis

The following is an interview between Sam Roudman (SR) and the founder of Front Porch Forum, Michael Wood-Lewis (MWL) that took place in July 2014. It has been edited for length and clarity.

SR: Let’s dig into the founding of Front Porch Forum (FPF). You guys started it in 2006. What led you to create this thing and what was your initial idea-concept? And how did that differ from what it became?

MWL: We started a precursor to Front Porch Forum in 2000. So I’ve been doing a version of this for 15 years, which is crazy in the digital world. We did something in my own neighborhood for six years with a spreadsheet and an email listserv tool, but after doing it for six years, I was leaving a job managing an environmental nonprofit, and I realized just how super effective this was for our 500 household neighborhood.

...[So] in 2006 my wife and I started this as a business. We saw that the precursor to FPF made our neighborhood a visibly better place to live, and to raise our kids: safer, stronger, better sense of community, with more involved people who knew each other better... the impact was wonderful.

SR: What are some examples of the specific interactions that this rudimentary tool was facilitating?

MWL: We’re a mission-driven for-profit. Our mission is to help neighbors connect and build community, and we do that by hosting this statewide network of online neighborhood forums. The trick of it is that people join not for social change, most people join because their dog is lost, or they need a plumber recommendation, or they want to borrow a ladder, or sell their car or whatever, and they’ve heard that this is an effective way to do those things. But then they end up sticking around because the content is coming from nearby neighbors and it’s highly relevant, and everyone is clearly identified and it’s a civil, friendly space. Over time, people’s perception of their surroundings starts to change. They feel like they know more people, they feel better connected, they feel more informed, more on the grapevine. Their sense of ownership of place goes up, and they get more involved. So we see people volunteering, people starting projects, a park cleanup or starting a mentoring program or a rec. program for kids baseball or something.

FPF is kind of a catalyst, or a starting point, for conversations that rise up and out of the digital world into the real world. People often spend five or 10 minutes a day on FPF, but they'll spend an hour a day talking about what they saw on FPF with people around them. I don’t have hard numbers on that, but that’s the kind of anecdotal evidence we see again and again. It’s all about stimulating neighbors to spend more time talking with each other.

SR: You’ve been able to circumscribe neighborhoods: What are the elements of a neighborhood? How big can it be? And how do you get one of these things up and running?

MWL: We have blanketed the state of Vermont, so every part of the state is covered by a single Front Porch Forum. About 200 cover this small state, and each one covers about a thousand households. We’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years figuring out how best to do this. It’s an imperfect science, or perhaps more art than science. You’ll never please everybody.

If you ask 20 people living on one block to describe their neighborhoods, you'll probably get 20 different answers—some people will describe a 10,000-household area, and some will describe a 20 or 30-household area. Our premise again is to get neighbor talking to each other, so we’ve tried to optimize our geographical boundaries to stimulate that.

The scale is one issue. You also have to pass the local authenticity test. If you lay down boundaries that make no sense to a local person, which is pretty easy to do if you don’t live in a community, then you fail. You have to have some kind of local information to go along with your census data to sort that out. We’ve worked with regional planners, realtors, with state level politicians, GIS experts, non-profit folks who do community development work, any number of people who’ve helped us understand community boundaries and political boundaries.

In Vermont we have a lot of very small towns, and they’re in fact too small to support a single FPF. So which of these towns do you join together into a single FPF? School boundaries go one way, and water district boundaries go another way, and state rep. boundaries go some other direction. It can be a very confusing undertaking. We stay flexible too, because we’ve learned if we do our homework we might get it about 80 percent right on our first try.

SR: What do you do if you want to get something done, if you want someone to help find your dog, or something.

MWL: It’s pretty simple. You go on the website, you enter in your street address and you register. Once signed up, most online social media tries to capture as many hours of your day as they possibly can. Facebook would love to have you spend eight hours, 18 hours a day. With FPF we’re really just hoping for five or ten minutes of your day. What we’ve found most effective...for our members is to put our content out in a neighborhood e-newsletter once a day at most. So: the lost dog posting and the bicycle for sale, free couch, and the history talk at the library, whatever it is, those items are bundled up, and hit people’s inboxes each evening for that neighborhood. If there’s no compelling content, we’ll skip a day rather than try people’s patience. The goal is that every time we contact the members, they should see something compelling.

So you get the e-newsletter. You read it, maybe you delete it, maybe you follow up, contact one of the people who wrote something, and get the free couch. Or tell them you saw their missing cat run across the street. My neighbor lost a cockatiel yesterday, my little boy saw it on the street and he was able to run over and tell them, ‘I saw your bird!’

It’s face-to-face interaction we’re really trying to promote. People forward their local FPF e-newsletters quite rigorously. There’s actually a black-market for them, because you can only sign up for the one where you live...If you’re looking for a free couch, you can tell your buddy...then he might forward you one from across town.

We also have a growing number of features on the website: you can search the archives, you can sign up for an alert, public officials can get access to many neighborhood forums. The solid waste official I know wants to see any time someone asks a question about recycling, so she has access to 50 neighborhood FPFs. She doesn’t want to scan or read those every day, so she gets an alert saying “in this neighborhood, people are asking about tire recycling,” and then she can answer the question.

We have a community calendar for each neighborhood FPF too. Local groups use our widget to put their FPF calendar on their own web pages, like libraries, schools, town halls, nonprofits. Unlike many community calendars, FPF’s local calendars are often chock full of event, because they automatically harvest listings from our already-vibrant e-newsletters.

Members may elect to share their posting beyond their own neighborhood too, via our “shared posting” feature. So if you want to get the word out more widely about selling your car... you can check a box and make it visible to people in surrounding FPFs. That’s proven very popular. But if you’re saying that your 13-year-old daughter is available to be a mother’s helper or babysitter or something, maybe you want that to only go to your nearby neighbors, and not more broadly, so you don’t check that box.

SR: Do you have a business model? What’s the pricing structure?

MWL: We have a dozen employees and our main source of revenue comes from ad sales to local businesses. Because people pay such close attention to what their neighbors say, it turns out to be a great place for local businesses to get their messages seen too. Local nonprofits and political campaigns buy advertising also. We also offer a paid subscription to select public officials, municipalities, and institutions. I mentioned the solid waste district person, for example, or the regional planning authority, or different state agencies. They then pay an annual subscription fee that gets them access so they can communicate with their constituents. So that’s another source of revenue.

SR: Are you looking to grow this outside Vermont?

MWL: We are open to expansion opportunities. Vermont no doubt is a very special place, but there are a lot of special places. FPF meets a basic need: humans do better when they can easily communicate with the people around them and be well informed about local goings-on. It seems bizarre in some ways that in this digital age that we are less dialed-in than ever before to our neighborhoods, but it’s true. Go back a generation or two and talk to parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. People used to know their neighbors a lot better, used to know what was going on in their neighborhoods, used to understand the significance of what was going on in their local surroundings a lot better. FPF helps people reconnect at that level.

I think it works well in lots of different settings. We’ve had lots of interesting conversations with communities around New England and some other places, and we’ll see if something will go forward or not... but we haven’t pursued the Silicon Valley model yet. We haven’t raised a big round of venture money and tried to blow this out very quickly, although others have...

SR: For example?

MWL: Well there are a number that have tried and failed, and then there’s one that’s making a real shot at it, Nextdoor...Their model is a bit different, they’re not focused initially on revenue. I can’t speak about their platform... but someone who is familiar with both platforms, who'd lived in Burlington and used FPF and then lived in San Fancisco and used Nextdoor, said ‘one of you is a mile wide and an inch deep, and the other is just the opposite.’ ...I would guess if you’re a mile wide, like Nextdoor, you probably have lots of examples of success, but we’ve got success almost everywhere we operate, and still it’s a small field, but we take a lot of pride of making each FPF successful along the lines of our mission.

SR: The problem is you guys have to moderate, otherwise the discussion will stop being civil. How do you deal with that? If you want to be in these towns, something akin to a public utility, how do you wield that kind of power that comes with that if people are acting up in ways negatively affecting that community?

MWL: There’s a real skill around online community management, especially for communities of place, versus communities of interest, because these people live near each other... It’d be very easy to operate a service like ours and actually work diametrically opposed to our mission. Someone could operate a service like ours and it could end up driving neighbors apart and destroying the sense of community. So that’s a concern I have for other services, if they just kinda say ‘well, we’ll let the crowd decide...oh, that’s not our concern we’ll just set it up and let it go.’

In our eight years of hosting these, and my 14 years going back to starting in my own online neighborhood, we’ve learned it’s a delicate business. Once burned it’s hard to get people back, and it’s not always obvious what’s going on. It’s clear when someone says ‘I think the mayor is ‘bleep bleep bleep’ for the following six reasons,’ but when someone writes a snarky comment that you can’t even quite recognize as insulting one family over another family who has, you know, lived there for generations and it’s actually a racial issue, and yet people who live there recognize it immediately and are outraged... that kind of stuff can happen, and you have to have a human being ready to accept responsibility and make it right. It results in higher quality experience, but of course there’s some labor involved, and so it’s a cost. As I said, we’re mission driven. We got into this not to set up as many Walmart stores as we possibly could; we set it up because we wanted to help the place we live, and the concept of ‘the place that we live’ grew from our neighborhood, to our city, to our county, to our state... and maybe to New England. We’ll see. We want to keep doing it at a level where it’s a quality experience for most people, most of the time.

SR: Since people are using their actual names in a location setting, how do you protect their info and identity?

MWL: Well, we think about that a lot. We recognize that everybody is vulnerable on the internet. We have a privacy policy and we take that seriously, and everybody who joins FPF must provide their first and last name and their street address and their email address. We don’t ask for anything else: there’s no credit card information, or other identifying information, no photos or anything. Some of that information appears whenever you post, and it appears to your neighbors not the world wide web. If you post your free couch, it'll say your first and last name, then the road you live on and then your email address. Some people aren’t comfortable with that, and we tell them FPF is free of charge, but that the price of admission is you have to essentially wear a nametag. It’s like going to a block party: you can’t kind of skulk around behind a bush and not talk to anybody, you gotta step up and have your nametag on.

There are a few cases where people really aren’t comfortable with that, and we recognize that and don’t have any judgment of anybody. So for a small percentage of people FPF is just not a fit.

SR: Any last thoughts?

MWL: You used the word utility... Somebody told me once, ‘I think of my FPF like tap water.’ But then he said that his tap water had been shut off for the last two and a half days because the water main was being replaced, and he was desperate. He had no idea how much the quality of his life hinged on being able to turn a faucet on.’ And he said that’s like FPF. He lived somewhere else for three months and didn’t have FPF, and rattled off this list of times he wanted it. He wondered ‘how do you people talk to your neighbors around here?’

Coming from outside the neighborhood or outside of Vermont, FPF can underwhelm. It can take months of using it to really feel it effects. Someone once described it as slow drip irrigation versus the firehose of the internet. Like ‘oh, I felt like my roots are getting what they need.’ Because a lot of the value comes from beyond the content... from who is saying it and in what context..

When I see a posting about a lost cat, it may not be that compelling to me... but if I see it’s from Ben Smith, who I know lives around the corner from me and he’s a banker and I’ve been thinking about talking to him about a loan, you know, I’m going to call him up and talk to him about his cat, and use that to segue into talking about a loan. Or if I see [a posting] from somebody I don’t know on my street, and then I put two and two together and I see it’s the new family who moved in recently, then I’ll reach out and say hi to them, If I see that they’re looking for the best pizza shop in town, I may head down and give them a coupon. That level of value is hard to discern from the outside because most of the postings all look like John Doe on Maple Street or whatever... outsiders lack the context that bring out the deeper value.

The last thing I’ll mention, because this is techPresident is FPF’s role in local political decision-making. Vermont’s tradition of town meeting as a form of town governance is strong, and Front Porch Forum has been playing an increasingly important role... which is stunning for an institution that’s two-to-three hundred years old In the past, people would show up at town meeting (or they just wouldn’t show up at all) and some would be marginally informed. The live discussion and debate would help, but there’s only so much learning that can happen that quickly. Regardless, decisions would be made. Now, with FPF, debate starts two months beforehand with most of the town participating on FPF People start debating about the school budget or whether or not to buy a new snow plow or whether or not to pass the town amended charter, to take on some climate change issue or whatever. You know, it’s hashed around like any online space: there are facts and good players, and there is rhetoric and there are flamethrowers, but it is moderated. The point is these are all clearly identified neighbors so when they actually come together to sit down to vote and to talk about stuff, they’ve had a two-month head start at getting informed. We’ve gotten a lot of very positive feedback, and have been told that it’s brought more people into the local political process... and that they’re better informed.