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Monthly Archives: January 2008

Rant and Rave vs. Neighborhood Miracle

Feedback from Front Porch Forum subscribers is overwhelmingly positive.  So today’s complaint submitted by a member in Burlington’s Old North End got my attention…

Every day it seems as though Front Porch Forum, well all of us that subscribe, continue to become more and more like the “Rant & Rave” section of craigslist – as a result Front Porch Forum is increasingly more petty and negative.  It seems as though everyone climbs on a particular stream and loudly wines – Burlington Telecom is our latest victim of this electronic faceless diatribe.

So I bid FP adieu and cancel my account.  The incessant complaining is  just too much for me.
Bye.

Well… that’s regrettable.  I take this feedback seriously. I also think that a thick skin is required to engage in public discourse.  And, frankly, the tone on the FPF neighborhood forum in question is nothing like the nastiness of many online comment areas… no name calling, e.g.  Several recent postings in the neighborhood forum in question have been complaints about city services, litter, crime, etc.  But I’ve seen them as primarily constructive and civil… but I guess that’s subjective.

For the record, the other four postings this morning to accompany the one above in that neighborhood are… two follow-up points about local telecom options, a call for volunteer basketball helpers at the neighborhood school, and this gem of a follow-up of an earlier post from Matt…

Last night a miracle happened.  7 people, strangers until last night, put aside their excuses and braved the cold Vermont winter night to clean up our neighborhood.  We walked south on Elmwood, west on Peru, north on Champlain, then back to Elmwood by way of North.  Along the way we collected and disposed of 10 bags of garbage.  Despite the cold it was a good time.  Tara’s brownies flowed like a chocolate river in high flood.  The laughs were continual and of a high quality.  No cheap jokes in this bunch.  Just straight shooting zingers all the way.

Next time we’ll do a different block.  Next time we’ll have even more people, and I’ll bring prizes for the best find.*

*Prizes may consist of a high five, but it will be quality.  Seriously I have a no miss system, yes it cost me, and yes the price was worth it.

Definitely not “incessant complaining”… makes me proud to be associated with FPF’s members.


Neighbors Rain Down Canoes on Local Girls

I received a wonderful note recently from Sharon, a Front Porch Forum member in South Burlington, VT…

I have a FPF experience that might be worth sharing.  For her 14th birthday, my daughter wanted to do a day long canoe excursion with several of her friends.  I had noticed during my walks through our neighborhood that several of my neighbors owned canoes (some that did not appear to get a lot of regular use).  I decided to put-out a request to see if folks would be willing to lend-out their canoes for a day.  I needed about 4.

I was so excited, as I received more offers than expected.  Several folks let me stop in at my leisure to pick-up and drop-off the canoes.  They also lent me paddles and life vest.  My daughter and her friends had a great time.  Also, thanks to my neighbors and FPF, we saved about $200.00 in canoe rental costs!

And coincidentally, Sharon won a gift card at a local kids’ store in a Front Porch Forum raffle.  She wrote in to say…

Thanks to my big Kid’s Town win, I’m somewhat a celeb with my neighbors as well as with friends from other neighborhoods who participate in FPF.  It really is pretty amazing how FPF connects so many folks on a neighborly level.


Orton Family Foundation Interview

I was pleased to be interviewed recently by John Barstow of the Orton Family Foundation regarding “innovation in place.”  The Orton Family Foundation is and has been involved in some fascinating work.  John asked insightful questions about Front Porch Forum.


Online Civility can Promote Free Speech

Occasionally Front Porch Forum is criticized for hosting moderated online forums. The critics worry about freedom of speech… giving every hothead unlimited space to vent seems to be some kind of gold standard.

While I recognize the immense value that our Bill of Rights grants us, especially freedom of speech, I also feel that the incivility found on many online spaces stifles free speech from those of us less willing to step down into that kind of environment.

So it was heartening today to read Charles C. Haynes piece on this subject. He writes, in part,…

I want people to read The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It, a just-released book by Os Guinness — an influential Christian writer and public philosopher… Guinness urges us to focus on the urgent question that confronts the United States and the world: How do we live with our deepest differences, especially when those differences are religious and ideological?

The answer, he argues, begins with a rejection of extremes on both sides of the culture wars. Say no to a “sacred public square” — where one religion is privileged at the expense of others. And say no to a “naked public square” — where all mention of religion is removed from public life. Both are unconstitutional and unjust.

Guinness proposes an alternative vision of America, a vision consistent with both the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment: A “civil public square” where people of all faiths and none are equally free to enter public life on the basis on their convictions and where the government neither imposes nor inhibits religion.

Among other things, a civil public square requires forging a civic agreement to uphold the rights of others, even those with whom we deeply disagree, and a commitment to debate our differences with civility and respect.

Haynes goes on to say…

Civility doesn’t mean we all pretend to agree; it isn’t “niceness” that papers over disagreements. Differences matter — and we should debate them openly and freely. But how we debate, not only what we debate, also matters.

Civility, argues Guinness, doesn’t stifle debate or dissent. On the contrary, genuine civility “helps to strengthen debate because of its respect for the truth, yet all the while keeping debate constructive and within bounds because of its respect for the rights of other people and for the common good.”


Why is newspaper delivery so difficult?

When I was a kid, I was a paperboy starting in 2nd grade and on into junior high. It was a modest afternoon route handed down through my older brothers. Took about an hour on my bike (I’d see how far into the route I could get each day riding no-handed). Had to “collect” every two weeks in the evenings, going door-to-door… “$2.40 please.” Oh the excuses I used to get over a couple bucks!

Now someone is protecting kids from this experience and so we have adults in cars doing the job… at least that’s what I’ve seen in many places. We’ve had good delivery service in our neighborhood… no complaints. Our favorite carrier was a high school girl saving up for college… did the route every morning at a jog to get in shape for school sports.

But the things I hear on Front Porch Forum… ay yi yi. One neighborhood forum complained that their delivery man was also a peeping Tom. Police were called. Another FPF neighborhood forum complained so long about delivery service (late, no paper, wrong location, etc.) that the newspaper eventually responded in writing through Front Porch Forum to the whole neighborhood with a broad apology and excuse and a plan to do better… not sure where that one stands today.

And one neighborhood reported that the delivery person’s car was so loud that it was waking people and, amazingly, the neighborhood’s response was to pass the hat to give the person a gift certificate to a local muffler shop. Now today the identical issue surfaced across town… did the same carrier get transferred and just pocket the gift certificate? A resident of the new neighborhood reports, after being awakened repeatedly at 4:30 AM, that the newspaper advised him to call the police… it’s not the paper’s problem.

So, the blogosphere is crowded with discussion about newspapers’ business woes as brought on by the web and other forces. But I haven’t read anywhere about the struggle to just get their product to customers’ doorstep. Where are our nation’s 12 year olds when we need them?

P.S. Of course, before Front Porch Forum it wasn’t so easy to know what was going on in a given neighborhood. Maybe it’s always been this bad. I recall tossing the paper onto the porch roof of one my customers so often that I knew where to find the closest ladder (two doors down, behind the garage) and put it to use before I was found out… lucky for me he didn’t post my bad aim online for the whole neighborhood to see!


Smalltown.com explains itself

A detailed posting about Smalltown.com‘s status today including its acquisition of Local2me.com… worth a read (comments too for a little fun).

While I’m uncertain if Smalltown’s approach has enough juice to keep people tuned in (it’s a souped up yellow pages with some social networking running through it), I am fascinated by their authentically local approach… town by town growth with real people on the ground.


Winooski: Scale and online conversations

Great things are happening through Front Porch Forum in much of our pilot area of greater Burlington, VT. That said, our initial model is not an ideal fit for some communities. We’re working on adjustments and always welcome input. One such challenge is the small city of Winooski.

Winooski has nearly 3,000 households and is covered by four FPF neighborhood forums. About 12% of the city subscribes. Unfortunately, Winooski doesn’t have clear cut actual neighborhood boundaries that jibe with our target scale of several hundred households. So the FPF neighborhood forum boundaries feel arbitrary to many residents.

Couple that with the fact that Winooski is underserved by local media… no city newspaper or blog, etc. Front Porch Forum is the one thing getting any traction that I’m aware of.

All this adds up to several people calling for FPF to combine its four Winooski neighborhood forums into one large citywide forum. I’m reluctant. FPF is all about small groups of nearby neighbors connecting online… and that spilling over onto the sidewalks and into the cornerstores… from the virtual to the actual front porch.

One supersized forum, I’m afraid, will be dominated by a few loud voices focused on larger issues and official pronouncements. Gone will be the small voices and the “need to borrow a ladder” and “my teenager is available to babysit” postings.

So it was hard to read a posting the other day from a member who concluded her request for one citywide forum with a promise to boycott FPF’s advertisers until we complied. Oh dear. We’ve got to come up with a reasonable solution to this.

Enter Winooski resident Cathy Resmer

I just read your comment on Front Porch Forum about wanting Winooski to be one neighborhood.

I, too, wish we could have a way to communicate to the entire city.

However, I know Michael Wood-Lewis, and have talked with him at great length about his service, both as a reporter (in the past few years), and more recently as a representative of a company that sponsors the forums (Seven Days).

I can tell you that Michael understands Winooski’s need for one forum. But the service he provides (for free) is based on a model that’s built to encourage neighbor interactions. He believes — and his research shows — that if he increases the size of the forum to include the entire city, he will damage the neighborhood interactions that the forums are meant to encourage.

Please, ask him to explain it to you. He’s very articulate, and, I believe, an honest and trustworthy guy.

Yes, it is *extremely* frustrating that we get so little media coverage in Winooski. I do what I can to cover stories or get them covered in Seven Days. I ran the Winooski Eagle for nearly a year — essentially by myself, and at great personal cost — because I believed that the city needed its own paper. I still believe we need it, but frankly I can barely keep up with this outrageous tax increase, much less idealistically underwrite the city’s struggling newspaper.

So I understand your reaction to Michael’s refusal to create one Winooski “neighborhood.”

But I urge you to reconsider your pledge to boycott the businesses that support the Forums. Michael is providing a great service to us. It’s not exactly the service that we want, but it’s still better than what we had before, which was *nothing.*

The bottom line is that FPF is not, and will never be, a substitute for a Winooski newspaper. But it’s got me talking to you — and our neighbors listening in. I think that’s a good start. And it’s worth our support.

If we need that one Winooski forum, let’s find a way to create it instead of tearing down the forums we’ve got.

Respectfully,
Cathy Resmer, Online Editor, Seven Days

Wow! Thanks Cathy. I look forward to sorting this out.


Seeking horse playdate…

Some folks are surprised to hear that Front Porch Forum works well in rural settings, in addition to more conventional neighborhoods. Huntington, VT is a great example… about 25% of this rural town subscribe and the conversation is steady. Here are couple posts from today…

My 2 1/2 year old quarter horse, Koko, would absolutely love to play with someone his own age. His lovely companion is 18, and will occasionally run around with him, but he’s really looking for something more fun.Do you have a youngish playful horse in Huntington that can come over to Koko’s pasture for a play date every so often? And a way to bring him/her over (I don’t have a horse trailer/truck yet)? Thanks!

And…

Greetings! We’re looking for someone to fix our propane backup generator. We live off-grid and really rely on the generator during these less than ideal solar power times! Any suggestions on who we could call? Thanks!

Of course, on the actual forum (open only to Huntington residents), each posting includes the writer’s full name and road they live on. I’m willing to bet they both get multiple responses to these requests… and get to know more of their neighbors along the way.


Bowling Alone but at least I have Facebook

Cameron Marlow, research scientist at Facebook, argues today against Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone thesis and the notion that more time spent commuting reduces a person’s social life. I think Cameron is suggesting that the more one commutes, the more time a person can spend on Facebook… and therefore said lucky soul will have a richer social life.

Perhaps I missed his point. It may be an MIT vs. Harvard thing. I don’t agree with all of Putnam’s conclusions, but I don’t doubt his data and the core of his analysis… Americans are less connected to the community where they live than they have in the past and this is not a good thing. I know that millions of kids (teens and 20s) and people in the tech industry use Facebook… but I just don’t see that as a replacement for a nation full of people richly engaged in local clubs, schools, churches, municipal government, civic organizations, sports, elections, charities, arts, etc.

Facebook is a game and local engagement is about building up the community in which you live. Apples and oranges.


Facebook is just a game

“Facebook is just a game. That’s it, that’s all.” So says Sebastien Provencher. Thank goodness for the holidays and their tendency to break people out of their ruts and send them back home for a bit of grounding…

During the Holidays, I met with my friends and family multiple times and one topic of conversation that came up very often was Facebook. “What’s Facebook?” my mom would ask. “Why are people so fascinated with it” my brother-in-law would add. “It’s useless” or “it’s a waste of time” would also come up very often. The proof of the whole uselessness was the “poking” and the “sending my friends a virtual beer” examples. I tried explaining Facebook the way I’ve explained it many times in this blog but I quickly realized I was getting nowhere. My friends and family members that thought Facebook was useless wouldn’t change opinion even after I explained my big social media theories.

PreFacebook Life of a Techie
Yea these many years ago, I was a kid playing Pong on my family’s vintage black and white TV… I could and did play that thing all day (was it an Odyssey? I think it came from Sears). Then it was Atari… in color! Space Invaders, then Atroids, PacMan and beyond. And I owned a few of the first handheld “videogames”… football and car racing come to mind.

In college, I dragged along my old Atari into the dorm, risking and receiving a bit of ridicule, but soon enough we were engage in epic tournaments of some four player “breakout” type game where each guy tried to protect his king in his castle of bricks… alliances made around the beanbag chair on the shag carpet… daggers plunged into backs… great fun.

Then it was on to music… collecting other people’s music. My chosen low-budget approach was making audio tapes from borrowed or rented albums and recording off the radio (the college station played complete albums)… later CDs.

I was the first person I knew to buy a PDA… a Casio with a full keyboard… oh man I loved that thing. A buddy and I used its built-in spreadsheet software to track a cross-country road trip, among many other uses.

Sometime after grad school, I landed a job that included broadband access at my desk… wow! The web didn’t have much to offer yet, but email was incredible. I corresponded with every old friend and family member I could find that used email (and didn’t try to keep in touch with those who weren’t online).

While I typically worked conscientiously at this job, now I had a growing set of diversions at my fingertips… (1) computer games mysteriously living on my hard drive, (2) music I could play on my CD drive and research on the web, (3) contacts and calendar I could manage on my PDA, and (4) friends and family whom I could email. It’s a miracle that I accomplished as much as I did at that position.

Entertainment’s Place
Which brings me back to Sebastien’s point above about Facebook. I have a Facebook account and I’ve nosed around repeatedly… but for the life of me, I have no interest. Am I the only one not on board? Sometimes I think so… but then I have a moment like Sebastien’s homecoming and I realize that MOST people are not on or deeply into Facebook.

And when I look at my life now… it’s very different than when I was a teenager or in my 20s and spent a large amount of time on entertainment… games, music, socializing. Now, as a husband, father of young kids, son of aging parents, active member of my community (i.e., the place where I live my “first life”), and business owner… well, I’m in a very different place. I’m blessed that my “entertainment” is woven into the daily fabric of a rich and mostly balanced life… very different than emailing distant and fading old friends from a lonely cubicle.

Facebook offers next to nothing for me now. From age 13 to 33 I would have been all over it. But I don’t long for any online tools at this point. In fact, I want to spend less time interacting with and through technology and more with kids, neighbors, extended family and other people in my life. Front Porch Forum evolved out of this situation.

Follow the Kids, Dummy
One last point, many voices can be heard saying we should bow down to Facebook and other services that cater to youth… because obviously that’s the way of the future. Follow the children!

Hmm. I know lots of kids, teenagers and people in their 20s. Lots of wonderful young folks. They bring much to the discussion… but I’m not ready to abdicate my responsibility as an adult, parent and community leader in order to follow the lead of a gang of 17 year olds.

What a loss for all involved if my father had chucked what he was all about and spent his time with me playing Atari, collecting bootlegged Bruce Springsteen and Replacement albums, and trying to keep the connection alive to that guy named Bill from bio class years after we parted ways. No, he was busy doing real things of consequence with real people in real time and space.

And he (and other adults in my life) got me outside, involved in my community, working, to the family dinner table, etc. He didn’t forbid me my “screen time”… but he saw it as play time… not as the guiding principal around which his generation should mold our society.

A New Entertainment Industry Born
Hollywood, pop music, video games… all established entertainment industries. And now Facebook and others have created an industry out of a collection of things we’ve always done (social networking)… souped it all up considerably. I’m interested to see where this all goes, but not keen to jump in or give it too much weight. More and more Americans seem to be spending more and more time, money and emotional energy on entertainment… reminds me of what I recall learning of the latter days of another empire.