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Monthly Archives: November 2006

Google takes aim at Mom-and-Pops

Dot.com titans are hard at work to tie into the millions of small and medium businesses (SMB or SME) in the United States. I recall a Business 2.0 article that pegged the Yellow Pages as a $15B/year industry… that’s all paper, not online. And Peter Krasilovsky reported today about Google’s efforts to provide micro-websites to potentially millions of small businesses that otherwise have nothing to link to (and therefore can’t buy advertising space from Google).

Google’s head of SME product development, Dan Rubenstein, speaking at The Kelsey Group’s ILM event in Philadelphia, said that Google is going to meet SMEs halfway to get them to actively market themselves on the Internet. Google is developing several new products specifically with SMEs in mind (and may have quietly launched them).

First, it is rolling out microsites to help the SMEs that don’t have a website but want to advertise on Google – a group that potentially represents at least 50 percent of the 12 million + SMEs in the U.S with ad budgets. Without a URL and website to link to, of course, ad campaigns on Google are highly limiting.

Rubenstein noted that SMEs would have at least five templates to choose from.

Front Porch Forum’s sponsorship program (under development) is aimed at the micro-to-small end of the business spectrum, and, therefore, we’re expecting that few will have a web presence, nor care to have one. The three-man roofing contractor, the neighborhood daycare, the one-woman tax preparer, the corner store and autoshop. They’ll be able to advertise very cheaply in one or more neighborhoods in one-month increments. We haven’t really started talking about this publically yet and already two dozen businesses joined our waiting list. And since it’s nearby businesses sponsoring the surrounding neighborhood forums, there’s less need for each small enterprise to have a website… just “Special this week at Jerry’s Gulf this month: $20 oil change for members of this neighborhood forum.” And everybody knows that Jerry’s is up on the corner. Stay tuned!


Need a Crowd at your Event?

Anyone who organizes public gatherings knows how hard it can be to attract a good showing of local folks (unless major controversy erupts). Some thinkers reason that people just don’t care these days or they’re too busy.

I’m beginning to wonder if it’s more a case of the message being drowned out by the din of competing media… too much information swarming around us. Posting an announcement on the city’s website and in the local newspaper does not mean people will notice and act.

So it’s compelling that reports are piling up of people using Front Porch Forum to gather crowds for events. No single example impresses, but taken together…

1. Newly (re)elected State Representatives for South Burlington held a meeting this week to solicit input from their consituents. One incumbent reported “the majority of folks who got there did so through Front Porch Forum notification as contrasted to the notice in the [local daily newspaper].”

2. Burlington’s several Neighborhood Planning Assemblies meet monthly and provide an important community link to city government and are involved in many valuable projects. Recently, a city staffer who has attended countless such meetings reported the largest turnout ever. While the agenda contained a couple of hot issues, the sense was that a fraction of the crowd would have shown up if not for the new set of neighborhood forums covering that part of town.

3. My neighborhood is blessed with a great park. A concerned neighbor reported tonight that the Parks and Rec department may significantly change a portion of the park, and he posted the date and time for the public input meeting (first I’ve heard of it). I’m guessing this will be the next example of a big turnout generated through a Front Porch Forum posting.

Lots of other examples of neighbors pulling neighbors into local government goings on. In a way, this is using the internet to increase citizen participation in public policy and to hold officials accountable. That’s similar to the Sunlight Foundation‘s mission. I met with it’s National Director, Zephyr Teachout, today (still digesting the spread of ideas she laid out!). The Sunlight folks focus on citizens using the internet to press for transparency and accountability in the U.S. Congress. Amen!

Ultimately though, Front Porch Forum is about helping neighbors connect and foster community. Other benefits, like engaging your city councilor about property taxes, are an important bonus.


Tragedy Brings out Good, Better and Ugly

Watching neighbors connect through Front Porch Forum is often both fascinating and moving. This post from today, e.g., adds to other evidence we’ve witnessed of people wanting and waiting for a chance to lend a helping hand to those around them.

My husband died from metastatic prostate cancer in October. I asked for help finding someone to snowblow my driveway [through her FPF neighborhood forum] and think I have found someone. Then I went away for a week and when I returned my leaves were raked and removed and items moved from around the house to the driveway. I don’t know who did this, but I have to think it was someone in the neighborhood and I wanted to say thank you.

This message comes from a suburban-style neighborhood where about a quarter of the 200 households signed up with Front Porch Forum in the first three months of operation. To further thank her neighbors, the writer goes on to share a warning:

You should also know that in July 2006 we had a house invasion during the daytime (2:30 pm, man with a ski-mask) and my husband’s pain medication was stolen ([he] was lying in bed at the time). While I was away in November, there was another break in. His remaining medications were taken too. There is no more medication in the house and it is now very much more secure, but be aware that this sort of thing happens even in our own “safe” neighborhood.

Many thanks to the kind-hearted and energetic people who helped me out.

The anwser to the request for snow-removal help for the coming winter is great. The mysterious leaf-rakers are even better. But it’s the willingness of the writer to share her loss, ask for help, and offer a constructive warning to her neighbors out of what must have been an awful experience that motivates us to make Front Porch Forum happen for more people and neighborhoods.


French Community-Building Website

Rob Maurizi just forwarded this piece from Time magazine (Europe Edition) by Grant Rosenberg about Peuplade:

Just two months old, Peuplade enables users to find like-minded Parisians in their own neighborhood, or even their own building, to schedule a range of activities, including after-work drinks, jogging groups and block parties. Already some 40,000 people have signed up and participated in more than 1,100 events around town. A rollout in other French cities is planned soon.

That’s an amazing start! Rosenberg goes on:

Beyond recreation and socializing, the site also promotes exchanging small services like babysitting and visiting isolated senior citizens. “In Paris, we don’t have the habit of really knowing our neighbors,” explains one of Peuplade’s founders, Nathan Stern, a sociologist by training. “Our website is about establishing community interaction not based on looks, background or politics, but by virtue of being nearby.”

That last quote could be said for Front Porch Forum too. Now where did I leave my college French? Peuplade looks impressive, but it’s impenatrable to the likes of my English-speaking self.


Forums Nourish Neighborliness

Anecdotes are piling up of increased neighborliness in areas with vibrant Front Porch Forums. People seem more willing to see those living around them as neighbors worth getting to know vs. strangers who happen to live a few doors away once an FPF neighborhood forum breaks the ice. Some such stories are collected on our testimonials and media pages.

It’s wonderful to watch low-level online exchanges build up over time and feed positive face-to-face interaction. FPF postings come from nearby neighbors and each is automatically signed with the sender’s full name, street and email address. After dozens of messages about babysitters, car break-ins, furniture for sale, free baby strollers, roofer recommendations, public policy opinions and more, people begin to get to know their actual neighbors’ virtual personalities, interests, opinions, etc. When they do meet face-to-face, the foundation has been laid for a neighborly exchange.

Kevin Harris reports on three new publications that “contribute significantly to the arguments around neighbourliness, informality, and informal social control.” From the introduction of Respect in the Neighbourhood:

The challenge is to replenish society’s depleted stock of skills in engaging and recognising the legitimate interests of others… to hone our readiness to show consideration to others, whether we know them or not. It’s not that we don’t do this: it’s just that we tend to avoid doing it with those with whom we have little in common. It’s as if – conditioned to the taciturnity of the supermarket checkout rather than the inevitable greetings of the corner shop – we have abandoned the practice of conducting trivial interactions, because they don’t matter to us. But they do matter, and we need somehow to rediscover the vernacular of mundane encounters.


Why are local networks like minivans?

Peter Krasilovsky reviewed Tom Grubisch’s new article on local online efforts today:

Community networks, or “we networks,” are so poorly used that they tend to really be “me networks.” That’s the gist of a new article in Annenberg’s Online Journalism Review by Tom Grubisch, who revisits the subject a little more than a year after first looking into it.

A person need not search too hard to find such services that seem a mile wide and an inch deep. Grubisch’s piece devotes a few paragraphs each to ten examples of local citizen journalism sites. iBattleboro gets a decent review (gotta love those crazy Green Mountain boys and girls), but not so for most of the others.

This brings to mind (hold on, this is a stretch) the first years of minivan production. Some manufacturers started with the tried and true full-size van or pickup truck and nipped it down to a slightly smaller version. Others started with a car chasis and built it up. On the surface the two minivan types appeared very similar, but, of course, they were quite different… one drove like a truck, the other more like a station wagon. Ultimately, a new creature evolved, borrowing from both approaches… a true minivan. It’s now part of the automobile landscape.

So, to local online efforts… some are mini-versions of something much bigger and beefier, e.g., Backfence, which looks like a local online newspaper. Others approach from a grassroots level, where the content is intended for a few hundred households, more a neighborhood newsletter… Front Porch Forum is coming from that angle.

Are these both “minivans” or two different things? The first tends more toward citizen journalism, the latter toward community-building within neighborhoods. Will the two approaches converge? Will one or more of these models become part of the “permanent” online landscape?

I tend to think that journalism requires professionals at its core, but the volunteer bloggers and online others provide a great service in keeping the pros honest and on their toes (and more). So, for my local news, I prefer a mix of local professional outlets and citizen efforts.

On the tiny end of the scale, most people want to know what’s happening on their block, and the only people who can deliver that content are their neighbors. Early success of Front Porch Forum and other neighborhood-level services seems to back that up.


Birmingham Neighborhoods Online

An article in The Birmingham News by Hannah Wolfson last month (thanks to Keith Hampton for pointing it out) outlines neighborhood-level online activity around Birmingham, Alabama. The stories she relays are happening with Front Porch Forum neighborhoods too… very similar.

They’re part of a growing movement across the metro area, where residents are turning the Internet into a virtual back fence, sharing issues ranging from break-ins to home sales to the latest gossip.

“People are hungry for this. People are concerned about their community,” said Robin Schultz, who founded Bluff Park’s Web site in August after an armed robbery at a nearby Piggly Wiggly. “They just don’t have a way to address these concerns, and the Internet provides an avenue for people to communicate in their little portion of the world.”

“Everybody’s so busy these days,” said Matthew Coleman, a resident of South Avondale who started an online forum for his neighborhood in July. “Most everybody has access to the Web, so it’s a good place to store phone numbers and have a list about who’s a reliable contractor and who’s not. It’s like a small little neighborhood library.”

The Front Porch Forum model works great in residential areas dominated by families, and now we’re seeing it work in more urban, rural and small town settings. The need to connect with neighbors appears to flow across many parts of U.S. society at this time. More from the Birmingham article:

Such groups help neighbors form closer bonds, said Keith Hampton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication who has been researching neighborhood forums for eight years.

He said the forums work everywhere from dense urban locations to far-flung suburbs.

“People in the United States do not spend a lot of time socializing with their neighbors,” he said. “It’s been in decline for 30 years. I would like to think that this is an opportunity to change that.”

The article goes on to mention neighborhood online efforts that cover small condo developments, up to larger suburban neighborhoods of 830 houses. While some of the internet groups seem to focus on business (condo association meeting minutes), the more vibrant ones address the human need to connect with those around you:

Mark Coby, who started a Web site for the Inverness Homeowners Association, said the need for more community contact became clear to him after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “You could start at home by knowing your neighbors a little bit better,” he said. “Today it’s real easy not to even contact your next-door neighbor if you don’t have some kind of common bond,” he said. “It’s kind of nice to know who lives in your neighborhood.”

Finally, people think there’s more opportunity for this kind of activity:

Buoyed by his success, Allen’s now trying to link all 99 of the city’s neighborhoods and help those who don’t have a Web site build one. “The more we get out the information, the better armed we are,” he said.


Success and Scale for Local Online Services

Recently, Peter Krasilovsky noted in The Local Onliner that Backfence.com is finding success with it’s “hyper-local” online newspapers (content supplied by local volunteers). Backfence attracted a $3M investment over the last year and now is operating in 13 communities. Further

Usage-wise, more than 10 percent of local residents in the site’s communities are logging on, and one percent are posting. “We don’t have as many posts as we’d like to have,” but the site has made real inroads in its communities, she says.

It’s a bit apples-to-oranges, but Front Porch Forum had 10% of Burlington, VT households on board within two months of launching… and for a tiny fraction of the investment. Our most successful neighborhoods have 80% of the households registered.

Also, on the issue of scale, The Local Onliner reports about Backfence…

One [lesson learned] is that a hyper-local site had better be scoped along hyper-local lines. “Arlington hasn’t done as well as Bethesda because it is a bigger area,” notes DeFife. “Arlington is actually (four) communities – Clarendon, Ballston, and North and South Arlington. It shows us what (is likely to) happen when we go into counties,” and that it important to keep the hyper-local focus.

If that’s “hyper-local” then I’m not sure how to describe Front Porch Forum’s target scale… micro-local?

Regardless, I’m fascinated to see the variety of approaches. Different strategies will work in different places.


The Local Internet

Seems like multiple overlapping versions of the internet are evolving… corporate, commercial, entertainment, social, blogosphere, etc. And now, increasingly, local. Unlike most of the other uses of the internet, I think the local version begs for people to not be anonymous, not rant quite so abusively, and not swing too far into vices… in other words, the local internet calls for people to be neighborly, civil and known.

So, I appreciate Bill Simmon and Cathy Resmer‘s comments about such things.


Looking for Good Links

I just set up the links in the margins here.  It’s interesting to see other online efforts attempting to support community within neighborhoods.  Each has it’s own approach.  Of course, I’m biased and favor the strategy used by Front Porch Forum.  I’d love to participate on a panel with representatives of:

Who else?

Please share links to other services focused on local online community-building.  Also, I’m interested in social capital, social cohesion, civic engagement, etc.  Any good sites to recommend?