I stumbled across a relevant book recently called Refrigerator Rights: Creating Connections & Restoring Relationships. Drs. Will Miller and Glenn Sparks thesis apparently (I haven’t read the book yet) is that we all need people in our life who we are comfortable with… to the degree that they have refrigerator rights in our home. That is, they can come in and help themselves. The authors point to Americans’ frequent relocations, as well as TV and computers, as likely culprits to the lack of such relationships.
The authors have a new blog too. Looks like their 2003 book is picking up steam and will be published again in 2007 with some new material. This book and its success supports the impetus underlying Front Porch Forum.
Many neighborhoods are using Front Porch Forum to get organized in the face of shared challenges… proposed highways, landfills, convenience stores, etc. Others have gone beyond playing defense to using their neighborhood forum to plan constructive changes… new playgrounds, block parties, strengthening communication with elected officials and more.
Now some of our area’s more innovative community organizers are figuring out ways to use Front Porch Forum to reach hundreds and thousands of local folks across multiple forums. Several options are being used successfully:
1. Develop an email list of local contacts. When you have a message to get out, send it to your list and ask each of them to post it on their neighborhood’s forum… kind of like an old fashion phone tree. Organizers report a more favorable response to their message, because people are getting the pitch from a neighbor vs. a stranger. Some of your local contacts may need to sign up first… send them to Front Porch Forum. Here’s a recent example:
Build Burlington’s Future. Our schools need you! Please volunteer to post updates to your neighborhood FrontPorchForum.com. There are approximately 40 neighborhood Front Porch Forum’s in Burlington and we want to get the word out in EVERY neighborhood. Reply to this email to find out more.
2. Join Front Porch Forum’s network of neighborhood organizers. In our first few months 175 people signed up for this designation across our 130 neighborhood forums. This group has it’s own forum where these organizers swap tips for successful neighborhood forums, as well as share interesting messages that organizers may choose to pass on to their own neighborhood forums. Any members can log onto Front Porch Forum (password required) and select the Neighborhood Volunteer status on their Account page.
3. Some local officials have access to multiple forums across their district/ward/town for “official business.” In some cases, an official is asked to share a message across several neighborhood forums.
4. In the first part of 2007, we plan to test a new feature that will allow members to post messages in neighborhoods other than their own, for a fee… something like a paid classified ad. Stay tuned!
Weekly and monthly community newspapers are sharing neighbor-helping-neighbor stories emanating from Front Porch Forum lately. The Essex Reporter, Charlotte News, Shelburne News and North Avenue News each ran features in December. More coming in January.
So much online space is whacked… strange people doing strange things… wonder around MySpace and soak it up. Even the relatively mainstream sites often sound shrill… spend an hour reading the comments section of some of the political blogs out there. Then there’s the manufactured hipness of most commercial sites.
So what’s a grown up to do? Many in our beta city are finding Front Porch Forum and breathing a sigh of relief. With participation in each neighborhood forum limited to nearby residents (within a few hundred households) and each message automatically labeled with name and address, people know to be on their best behavior. An exchange this week in one of our urban forums demonstrates…
A local real estate agent asked “why do we tolerate the theft of shopping carts by people who use them to collect refundable bottles and cans out of our recycling bins?” A few replies to the neighborhood forum built a rejoinder around “hey, give these folks a break; we should be helping them out not making them out to be criminals.”
At this point, in other online venues, one could almost hear folks gassing up their flame throwers, preparing for the inevitable nasty exchange. Not here. The real estate agent responded civilly and expanded on his original point… “why is it okay to steal shopping carts? We’d have a different reaction if these folks were stealing cars to collect bottles and cans, or your kid’s little red wagon.”
Now, when these previously-unknown-to-each-other neighbors meet while walking their dogs or shoveling snow (if it ever returns!), they’ll hopefully be able to continue this mostly civil and constructive discussion, or launch a new one… building community with those living nearby. Neighborhood!
I studied engineering in school and therefore never had time for Philosophy 101, so grant me license to roam occasionally…
As most of us chug through our stress-filled days focused on the next several “to do”s on the list, tragedy hangs nearby, waiting to pay a visit. The oncoming car crossing the centerline, the phone call in the middle of the middle of the night. Sometimes, thankfully, it retreats before doing its worst, like the story below from one of our neighborhood forums in Burlington yesterday:
Thank you to all our new friends on Scarff Ave for their concern for our 15-month-old son who suffered a very high fever over the weekend. He is recovering, but still under the weather. We took him to the hospital on Sunday night after his fever spiked from 101.3 to a whopping 106.7 in just over an hour. After numerous tests the Drs could not pinpoint a source of the fever – no infections – but did discover that he was severly dehydrated. We had been giving him plenty of water and a little fruit juice… The important thing is to drink the right kinds of fluids – namely Pedialyte or another electrolyte drink (not Gatorade). Our son is still running a low-grade fever and today broke out in a rash, which we were told to expect. He is being closely monitored, but for now the source of his incredibly high fever remains a mystery.
I wanted to share our experience to help other parents whose little ones might go through the same thing. Thanks again for all of the well wishes.
As a father of similar-age kids… wow. My heart goes out to this young family. And what a wonderful response from these parents… to be able to turn to new neighbors for support, and then, with their little trooper still showing symptoms, to share their story as a lesson so that others may avoid the same hardship. That’s great.
Much of Vermont is rural and therefore not uniformly well served by the bigshots of broadband, such as Verizon and Comcast. Peter Freyne interviewed the Speaker of the Vermont House, Gaye Symington today:
“It’s clear now, that waiting for the private sector to focus on Vermont and hook us all up to broadband is simply not a viable option.” The Speaker said the state should look at what the City of Burlington is currently doing – steadily proceeding to lay fiber to every door in the city (Burlington Telecom) providing broadband, telephone and cable TV service: “We’re dealing with something that’s on the scale of rural electrification. There’s going to have to be some creative thinking here that goes beyond just tax incentives and waiting around for the private sector.”
Also from The Local Onliner today, an interesting quote from an outgoing R.H. Donnelly executive, Simon Greenman:
Yellow Pages “[p]ublishers are well-positioned to become local search providers. But they’ll need to become much broader, with classifieds, promotional information and service directories. They’ll need to become more consumer-centric, with social networking, merchant recommendations and other features.”
I’m not sure how compelling all these features are when tacked onto a local search site. Front Porch Forum‘s approach is to build the most engaging local social networking service available, then integrate commercial features to add value for our members and pay the bills. That is, design the service for neighbors, and only treat these good people as consumers when and where it makes sense.
What are the most common categories for what people are looking for in (1) the Yellow Page and (2) local online search? Same things? Apparently not, according to The Local Onliner:
Just this week, Ask released the Top 10 food, music and business search lookups for its revised AskCity service. Here’s how AskCity’s Business Search compares to The Yellow Pages Association’s Top 300 categories:
1. Massage (#148)
2. Shopping mall (NA)
3. Hospitals (#9)
4. Family doctor (#2)
5. Churches (#22)
6. Plumber (#10)
7. Florist (#16)
8. Police department (NA)
9. General practice attorneys (#6)
10. Auto repair (#4)
The top ten Yellow Pages categories (from source above):
1. Restaurants (Fast Food & Nonspecific) 1,341 (millions of references)
2. Physician & Surgeons 1,173
3. Automobile Parts 567
4. Automobile Repair 449
5. Pizza 358
6. Attorneys 312
7. Automobile Dealers 28
8. Dentists 251
9. Hospitals 245
10. Plumber 244
Front Porch Forum doesn’t have enough data yet to be meaningful, but it will be interesting to see over time what our members are looking up in our message archives and via our sponsored links (forthcoming).
A story about Front Porch Forum will air tomorrow (Dec. 20, 2006) on Vermont Public Radio’s Morning Edition at 7:49 AM. That’s 107.9 FM around Burlington. We’ll have the audio version on our Media page after the fact. Thanks to Mitch Wertlieb and Ben Embry of VPR.
I’ve talked with hundreds of people in casual conversation about Front Porch Forum over the past many months. One of the most common comments goes a little something like this…
“I’m chagrined to admit it, but out of our entire neighborhood I only know the couple next door… and I’ve lived here for TEN years!”
It’s fascinating to watch the 130 neighborhood forums that we’re hosting across metro-Burlington… urban vs. suburban vs. rural; renter vs. owner-occupied; low vs. middle vs. high income, etc. We’re seeing successful adoption of the service across many of these different types of communities. It seems fairly universal that people want to connect with the people who live around them and attach to the neighborhood grapevine.
Kevin Harris posted the following in his blog today from the UK:
A friend was telling me today about a conversation with a neighbour, who she reckoned has lived in her street for well over ten years. The question she was asked was something like ‘have you seen so-and-so over the road? I haven’t seen her for a while.’ The lady in question had died some three years previously, unbeknown to the questioner.
For my friend, who grew up in a rural area, a bit of adjustment was necessary, because this couldn’t have happened in her village. But she lives now in a northern English city. I’m not surprised and probably most people who think about neighbourliness in contemporary society wouldn’t be surprised, which suggests that this sort of disconnection between neighbours is far from exceptional.
I don’t know how the United States and England compare along these lines, but it seems to me that this kind of thing happens in all sorts of settings in this country these days, at least here in Vermont, where many rural residents are urban/suburban transplants, not multi-generational farmers.