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Canoes and Online Communities: Front Porch Forum

BY Pete Peterson | Monday, June 22 2009

Last summer, Sharon Owens had a problem. The Burlington, VT mother of three was trying to satisfy the wishes of her soon-to-be 14-year old daughter who wanted to celebrate her birthday with a canoe outing with friends. The problem was renting the necessary canoes would have cost hundreds of dollars. Interestingly, it seemed that nearly ever other house in Sharon’s neighborhood had a canoe in the backyard or parked under a tarp next to a garage. But Sharon, like many of us did not know her neighbors, and felt uncomfortable asking them. The solution to this dilemma came in the form of a website called Front Porch Forum -- a micro-community site geographically focused on a neighborhood within Burlington encompassing a couple hundred households. Within days of posting her situation to the site there were over a half-dozen canoes on her front yard. Problem solved. But more than that, a community built. As Sharon says, “not only did my daughter have a great birthday and I saved a couple hundred dollars, but now I have a genuine connection to a half-dozen neighbors. Why didn't I know these good people years ago?"

Front Porch Forum is the brainchild of Michael Wood-Lewis and his wife Valerie who faced a similar challenge back in 2000. Newly moved in to the Five Sisters Neighborhood in Burlington, they too had trouble connecting. When they missed word of the annual block party, a neighbor later told them: "Oh, well, I guess you gotta live here 10 years before you're really on the grapevine." Michael and Valerie weren’t about to wait around for a decade; they had an idea. They set up a simple neighborhood email list and stuck a flyer in each of the nearby 400 front doors. As Michael tells it, attention grew slowly, but surely: “We live in a neighborhood full of active people with something to say. So people saw it as an easy way of being in touch.” Nine years after the “grapevine” conversation, more than 90% of Five Sisters subscribe with a recent survey indicating that more than half of them had posted an item to the service recently.

But the Wood-Lewis’ did not stop there. Actually, they had little choice. When surrounding neighborhoods heard about Front Porch Forum, they wanted in. Wood-Lewis said no, since he had a better idea: he’d build one for them. Today more than 14,000 households (all in Vermont’s Chittenden County) subscribe to FPF – each in subgroups of 200-400 households – small enough to “feel like a neighborhood/local community”, says Wood-Lewis. All told, Front Porch Forum hosts a network of 130 online neighborhood forums covering its pilot region. More than 40% of Burlington, the state's largest city, subscribes.

Some readers at this point are no doubt saying to themselves, “Well isn’t that a nice little story, but I already use Craigslist/Facebook/MySpace”. With the birth and persistent growth of Front Porch Forum, Wood-Lewis is demonstrating something quite different from those sites: the incredible power of the internet to build physical “community”, while at the same time showing web’s effective limits. At its root, Wood-Lewis is proving two, vital axioms pertinent to all community building – online or off: size and proximity matter.

This isn’t a mini-Craigslist, as Wood-Lewis himself describes (in words that might make Craig Newmark cringe): “Craigslist is wonderful and huge…But FPF is different. We're all about helping clearly identified nearby neighbors connect while Craigslist helps somewhat distant strangers have a single and often anonymous transaction.” Even as local as Craiglist tries to get it doesn’t begin to approach FPF’s micro-communities. For example, I live in the Los Angeles area, and even though that Craigslist page is broken down into six geographic sub-regions, the one where I live (“westside-south bay”) is still home to well over a million people, spanning dozens of square miles. And, unlike FPF, I can venture into other geographic areas in search of, well, anything. It is not without reason, that Craigslist’s two most popular “product” areas are “erotic services” and “casual encounters”. The latter phrase must seem oxymoronic to Wood-Lewis: a “casual encounter” in your neighborhood?

That’s not to say that you can’t find a good used car on your local Front Porch Forum. In fact, Wolfgang Hokenmaier recently sold his minivan to a neighbor in his FPF, noting, “We had more people…showing up to look at the van who found out through the Forum than the interest generated by Burlington Free Press, Cars.com and Craigslist combined.” With cars sold, there are also cats found, block parties organized, and local council meetings advertised. Community is built not just by people searching for a futon, but by checking their FPF for what is happening around them. While it is not a mini-Craigslist, it isn’t a mini-newspaper either. Requests for canoes, and lost cats do not an exciting newspaper make, but as a recent survey showed, over 95% of Forum members tune in to their local edition almost daily.

FPF members are illustrating the simple truth that we’re interested in what happens around us. In part, this is Tocqueville’s oft-quoted “self-interest rightly understood”: we want to be aware of proximate things that might help (a cheap desk) or hurt (a council meeting about a big apartment complex moving in) us. But the success of the Forums is also demonstrating the power of geographic closeness in creating that “glue”, which builds communities: trust. The Forums have proven to be a great place to find baby-sitters. Of course, this is because people tend to trust those within a certain geographic area; in very real ways, we are bound to them and they to us – they are our “neighbors” (our “bors” or “dwellers” who live “nigh”). We see them and they us – whether it’s in the driveway of your neighbor’s ranch house or in the elevator of your 50-story apartment building. At the same time, FPF’s methodology builds a virtual “hedge” around that neighborhood, making sure that only neighbors can participate.

This increase in social capital paired with a small daily dose of neighborhood news often results in people getting more involved in their local community. In fact, an independent survey found that 93% of respondents reported heightened civic engagement due to Front Porch Forum. Put another way, how much more likely is canoe-borrowing Sharon to help rebuild the local playground or volunteer with a local nonprofit after her experience around her daughter's birthday?

So how come we’re not seeing millions of FPF’s springing up around America? Well, it demands the two things that are often difficult to find: unremunerated time and love for where you live. At the base of each Forum is one or two “Neighborhood Volunteers” who act as important local boosters for the site, promoting its existence, and encouraging civil participation. They have no admin/editing privileges, but, interestingly, experience has shown that keeping dialogues civil is self-enforcing when neighbors know they’ll actually see each other at some point after they post. The Volunteers’ only compensation is a hearty “Thanks” from neighbors who almost unanimously appreciate the service and, of course, the benefits of living in a more connected neighborhood. As Wood-Lewis tells it, “getting folks to sign up is hard and slow work. People do NOT want to sign up for one more thing, and they procrastinate, and they hit technology hurdles, and they forget.” Still, he concludes, “FPF is incredibly successful at generating word-of-mouth neighbor-telling-neighbor buzz...this gets people to actually sign up.” FPF is a for-profit company that, after some initial foundation funding is only beginning to see some revenues from local advertising and fees paid by municipal departments for access to the neighborhoods. With four employees and steady growth in its pilot area, Front Porch Forum is eager to expand to other regions and is open to finding other financial partners as it helps build communities one neighborhood at a time.

Google “online community”, and you’ll receive over 60MM results. A quick scan of the first few pages shows confirms that most define the phrase in its basic sense: a “community” that meets “online”. From the “ASPCA Online Community” to the “children with diabetes community”, all of the participants have entered in to a group due to some affinity – hobbies, common experiences, ethnicity, religion, etc. – but most will never actually meet. Along with these “communities of support” are “communities of practice” – sites like Flickr and Wikipedia, where participants with particular skill sets or knowledge edit/critique/contribute to a particular product. What Michael Wood-Lewis is building in Vermont turns these models on their heads. He has created FPF to force interaction, and while people are free to sign up, they “qualify” only because of where they live – not who they are, or what they know.

With this micro-geographic focus, Wood-Lewis is deepening community ties by bringing people together who may have very little “in common” save for their street address. By forming around issues, most participants in online communities connect only on that single point. By making the neighborhood that place of contact, participants are naturally connected on a vast array of concerns – from the report about a keyed car to streets away to changes at the local school. Whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, Buddhist, Hispanic or Red Sox fan, these categories (for which there are millions of group-specific online forums) melt in light of the 200-family neighborhood.

What does all this mean nationally? A couple months ago, I wrote about the White House’s well-intentioned efforts to convene “national discussions” around particular policy issues. The WhiteHouse.gov website, in fact, calls itself an “online community”. While most of their work has been focused on gaining public input on policies ranging from transparency to health care, much of the online “community organizing” has taken place over at DNC headquarters with Organizing for America, or “OFA 2.0”. Congregating local supporters to talk about the president’s policies based on “talking points” memos and videos descending from Mount Washington (D.C.), these “community conversations” a far cry from the community-building occurring through the growing network of Front Porch Forums. It is fair to say that we see this law at work: as online gatherings get more focused on a particular subject, or broadened geographically, they diminish the chances of enabling the kind of reciprocating community – the kind of neighborhood – which is most naturally found when geography is focused and interests broadened.

Pete Peterson is Executive Director of Common Sense California -– a multi-partisan non-profit organization that supports civic engagement in local/regional decision-making (his views here are not meant to represent CSC). Pete also teaches a course on civic participation at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy.