Monthly Archives: February 2007

My Kids and Obama

One benefit of running Front Porch Forum is that I read of happenings, rumors and news from all across the region often before they reach the mainstream media. It’s mostly just fun to be plugged in that way. But occasionally I learn of something that I would have missed otherwise.

For example, back in December 2006, I read about a kick-off meeting for a draft Obama movement in Vermont. I heard Barack Obama speak at the last Democratic National Convention and was impressed. Further, I was one of thousands who tried in vain to hear him speak at the University of Vermont last fall… overflow crowds overwhelmed the facilities that had been set up. I couldn’t even get into the back-up space that had been rigged with sound.

So, it’s still so early and I’m looking at candidates from across the spectrum – this is bound to be a long and interesting election cycle – but he’s definitely offering exciting possibilities.

So, as a proud papa, I’ve got to “out” my kids too. Philip Baruth has an excellent piece on his take on Obama that he filed for VPR (audio, text). Here’s my favorite line:

One couple even brought their three kids, all in their PJs, and the kids crashed around the place and produced the excellent sort of mayhem that kids produce near or just past their bedtimes.

For the record, we had all four of our kids, but our seven-year-old passed on the jammies and wore his school clothes. And, yes, they were crashing around. Thanks again to the accommodating group and cafe proprietors!

Neighbors covered by print, radio, TV

The Richmond (VT) Times Ink! ran an article about Front Porch Forum in its current issue.  Also, the Charlie and Ernie Show called and chatted with me about this service the other morning.  Finally, Andy Potter at WCAX broadcast a piece about neighbors helping each other through the blizzard and mentioned Front Porch Forum’s role in some of this.  See these and other media stories on our press page, including a podcast of the call-in show.

Honest Lad saves Day

Our local blizzard broke some records (which is saying something in Vermont).  I’m not a meteorologist, but I think I’m qualified to say it’s A LOT OF SNOW!

The neighbor-helping-neighbor stories are piling up and people are using their forums more than ever.  In this mostly fun crisis, people turn to their neighbors to offer and request help.  Here’s one sample and I hope to post more soon:

You can imagine how bad I felt when I realized we returned home from the sled hill without our all-weather digital camera. Special pictures, like our daughter trying on wedding dresses, vacation that could never be replaced. I figured it was gone forever. But one posting on Front Porch Forum and it’s back! How lucky we were that an honest young boy was sledding the same day we were. Thanks!  -Jim Barrett, The Addition Neighborhood Forum

Blizzard brings out Good Neighbors

Burlington is getting buried by 24 inches of snow in 24 hours… or something like that. And high winds and drifting.

We’ve been battling snow all day, clearing roads, driveways, sidewalks… I’m spent! But inspired too. Nearly every time I went out to take another pass with the shovel I found that some good neighbor had cleared one portion or another of our walk or driveway. Tracks leading away from the good deed were always different and headed off in different directions. We’re living among a band of good Samaritans!

And on the Village Green Neighborhood Forum tonight, a subscriber posted:

If anyone needs help shoveling out from the storm, or if you know of a neighbor who needs help, post to the Forum and hopefully among a number of us on the Forum (three at my house) we can respond to the need.

That’s beautiful… really. Another great use of Front Porch Forum.

Citizen Media Survey

Wow! I just waded through the new study about online citizen journalism by the Knight Citizen News Network at the University of Maryland (thanks to the Local Onliner for the link). They surveyed a gaggled of local news/blog sites and wrote up their findings.

Front Porch Forum is a second cousin to this type of site, but not a sibling. Some comparisons:

Overall there was little accountability built in for content contributors: 73% of all respondents said their sites didn’t require users to register; 69% said a valid e-mail was not even required before posting. Only 40% of 141 respondents said their sites required contributors to use their real names; 60% said their sites allowed either anonymous posts or the use of “screen” names.

Front Porch Forum requires first and last names, street address and email address.

Asked whether their sites edited contributions before they were posted, 40% of 149 replies said content was edited; 48% said it was not and 12% just didn’t know. Half (50% of 131 replies) said offensive or inappropriate content was filtered out before posting. Most respondents (66% of 119 replies) said their sites removed offensive or inappropriate content after it was posted; but 17% of the respondents said such content was not removed, and 17% just didn’t know.

Front Porch Forum does not edit content, but it does screen all postings, add headlines and clean up formatting.

Half the respondents reported that 26 or fewer people overall were contributing content or skills to their enterprise, although site operators say many of those are just occasional contributors.

When we analyzed our flagship neighborhood forum that covers an area of 350 households, we found that about:
-300 households subscribe (after six years)
-200 households have posted at least one message
-100 households have posted at least six messages

For the past five months we’ve been hosting 130 neighborhood forums covering the Burlington, Vermont area. More than 15% of the city’s households have joined already. I’m not sure how many of those people are contributing, but I’d guess that it’s significantly greater than on many of the surveyed sites.

Based on their own definitions of “success,” 73% of our survey respondents pronounced their sites to be successful.

Well, it’s early, but I’ll give Front Porch Forum a thumbs up on the “success” question at this point. It seems most of the sites in the survey focus on success around journalistic goals of informing and engaging the public. Our purpose is to help neighbors connect and foster community within neighborhoods. Local news from our members to their neighbors contributes to that process, but it’s not the end goal.

Does anyone get paid? Of the 78 who replied: 33% said their sites had no paid workers; 33% said only one or two workers got paid.

We’re in the 33%. 😉

Social Capital: Good or Bad?

Thanks to Kevin Harris for writing about : Diverse Communities: The Problem with Social Capital, by Barbara Arneil, published last year. I look forward to reading this book. It seems that the author takes Putnam’s Bowling Alone to task around two points:

1. The “ideal” past of strong community outlined in Bowling Alone is another way of documenting the privilege of the established class/majority. That is, what about minorities?

2. Declining social capital may not be a bad thing.

I accept the first point as reasonable on its face, but the second is harder for me to swallow. Time to read the book, I guess!

Our experience with Front Porch Forum seems to show that many people long for greater connection with those around them and lament the decline of social capital in their lives. Many join one of our neighborhood forums seeking that connection. Our testimonials, media and stories pages are full of small examples.

Rule of Seven?

It never ceases to amaze me how many times people who like the concept need to hear about Front Porch Forum before they actually sign up… probably seven repetitions on average. These are folks who are interested and eligible.

Another person just told me today that he had heard about it for 5-6 months, read about it in the paper, heard from a neighbor, etc… just hadn’t got around to it. A sign on a library bulletin board finally pushed him over the edge, and he went home and registered. Human nature? Herre’s a couple quotes… similar stories:

1. I have been meaning to join for months now… this forum seems to be such a great tool for neighborhood communication. I am anxious to find out about what I’ve been missing! -The Orchards Neighborhood Forum

2. I learned about this this forum some time ago from a flyer hand delivered to my home. After being reminded about this group by one of school commissioners at last Thursday’s NPA meeting, I decided to join. -ONE East Neighborhood Forum

I have friends in the marketing world who confirm that seven is a find of magic number for hammering messages into people. Well, if Front Porch Forum was spreading with conventional marketing then we’d just need to buy enough compelling exposure to reach our target audience’s saturation point… wear ’em down, baby.

But that’s not the path we’re on. We depending solely on word of mouth, and the occasional media coverage. So, a typical neighbor who is excited about this new community-building service will tell the people around him… once! Or, sometimes, not at all… “well, I don’t want to bother the neighbors… they probably saw the same blurb in the newspaper that I did.”

Well, even if they did see it, on average they’ll need to get the message another six times before they sign up! So, to all Front Porch Forum members wondering how to get more neighbors on board… “tell ’em once, tell ’em twice, tell ’em again and keep it nice.” Okay, so that’s my first and last attempt at writing a cheer.

Point is… don’t be shy about telling and reminding friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc. to check it out.  Send them FrontPorchForum.com.

Using Neighborhood Forums to Broadcast

Front Porch Forum gets a steady stream of requests from local nonprofit organizations, schools and the like asking that we post their announcements across all of the neighborhood forums that we host. Regardless of how important or compelling their work, we must decline. Simply, our members don’t join to get a flood of public service announcements in their inboxes.

However, if they get an occasional such message about a fundraiser for a local youth center or a note about Girl Scout cookies AND it comes from a neighbor, then that seems to be okay and even appreciated.

So, a growing number of local groups are learning how to work with Front Porch Forum. They send their message to their list of supporters, staff, directors, etc. and ask each of those people to post the announcement on their own neighborhood forum. In this way, the message reaches a good number of people AND it’s coming from a nearby neighbor so it gets a bit more attention.

I noticed a posting last week started popping up all across Chittenden County. An alternative school was spreading the word about their annual open house, and the parents were sending out the message, each to his/her neighborhood forum. Turns out, this was the second time they tried this method, as one of the parents noted:

Glad to hear that the school community is making good use of the forums — it is amazing how many more people knew just what I was talking about (as compared to the fall). Very exciting!

Another sign that Front Porch Forum is growing and that people are tuning in!

Small steps toward Neighborliness

Kevin Harris writes this week:

I’m trying to write a paper about neighbourliness and have been thinking about the reciprocity of acts of neighbouring… research has found that… sometimes one neighbour helps out another without getting much in return, and keeps doing so.

However, the researchers only included… “favours” in their study, and it seems to me that other, intangible forms of interpersonal behaviour which are in some way supportive – for instance a sympathetic chat on the doorstep to provide comfort in the face of bad news, or the sharing of information about local services – are likely to be viewed by neighbours as valid contributions to the same exchange relationship.

Many years ago I recall rushing out of my house shouting when I saw from my window a neighbour’s toddler stepping into the road, as the mother was getting the shopping from her car. For this simple act I was rewarded almost immediately with a bottle of wine from the shopping bag. It was clear that I had to accept it, not least because there was probably a confused swelling wave of guilt as well as gratitude in her expression of thanks. But it was also, of course, a recognition of the non-obligatory, but potentially vital, role of neighbour.

This begins to get at what’s unfolding in some of the areas served by Front Porch Forum‘s more successful neighborhood forums. Some how the accumulation of lots of little items are creating an environment more welcoming of overt “good neighbor” acts, like baking a cake for a neighbor in need of boost. That’s an odd move if you’ve only interacted with the person once or twice, but is more reasonable if you’re both subscribed to the same small and lively neighborhood forum.

Need Feedback? Ask 100 Neighbors

Online “communities of interest” have long afforded people the chance to poll their colleagues about an issue or idea. I’m guessing a good portion of this has been limited to professionals talking to their peers, and highly involved amateurs chatting amongst themselves in their circles.

So it’s interesting that this past week we’ve seen lots of John and Jane Q. Public posting notes in their neighborhood forums looking for feedback and/or action from their neighbors. Some samples from Front Porch Forum:

1. A physical therapist in the Prospect Parkway Neighborhood Forum asked her neighbors for feedback on their experiences with PT. She edits a state PT newsletter and hopes to use the input there.

2. A local bakery runs an annual fundraiser whereby customers vote for a single charity out of a dozen or so candidates. The winner gets to be “baker for the day” working in the shop and taking home the proceeds. Last year’s winner (King Street Youth Center, I think) earned $3,000 for its neighborhood programs. This week, people all over town are plugging their favorite nonprofit on their neighborhood forums and urging their neighbors to go vote.

3. A food critic for a local paper opened a channel to the 100 or so neighbors on her forum, asking for story leads. She’s not the first reporter to tune into her neighborhood forum for tips, although she may be the first one to formally ask.

4. Elisa Nelson worked with a city official to place a brief survey on several Burlington neighborhood forums, gauging people’s sense of allowable new-house size in established neighborhoods, leading into the city’s zoning re-write (i.e., should we allow someone to build a house that is 25% larger than its neighbors? 100% bigger?). More than 5% of people completed and returned the survey.

5.  A South End parent created an online petition about changing the start time at Burlington High School by ten minutes to better mesh with the public transit schedule.  She posted a note in her neighborhood forum a day or two ago, and now it’s been posted by other people across 5-10 forums in town, reaching thousands of people.

I wonder what someone will think of next?