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Ghost of Midnight

… about neighbors, community and Front Porch Forum

Like a lively Town Meeting… FPF in Calais #VT

“How can you claim that Front Porch Forum builds community?  It’s mostly about lost cats, yard sales, and babysitters!”  So asked a professional from the world of community development and civic engagement.

Postings about car break-ins and plumber recommendations and the like are our bread and butter… no doubt.  But unlike some other online options, each posting on FPF comes from a clearly identified nearby neighbor.  Sampling a regular flow of very local news and conversation with not-anonymous neighbors over several months has a strange and wondrous cumulative effect.  In a way, each posting weaves a tiny strand, strengthening the local web of community.

People start to feel more connected to those around them after some FPF participation.  These members feel more plugged in and informed.  Their sense of ownership of place increases.  They often get more involved in the life of their neighborhood and town.

This doesn’t happen overnight.  It takes months.  And the foundation for all this is built on lost cat postings and pleas for babysitters!

Calais FPF has seen this the past week as online discussion sparked by a harsh critique of the conditions of the local unpaved roads and the Road Commission’s performance.  While this one resident took the Commission to task, others rushed to his defense.  This back and forth generated heat, but no “flame war” has erupted.  In fact, the latest batch of comments included a call to rally residents of this rural town for a work day.  That’s the ticket!

Here are excepts from some recent postings…

Let’s not worry too much about [the Road Commissioner]: he is a very mature guy and has probably had to suffer all this kind of criticism and worse while the condition of the roads was truly frightful. The letter was very strong admittedly, but also obviously sincere. And the “personal” parts really did relate to public duties. This Front Porch Forum democracy is better off for allowing such frankness even if it does cause discomfort, whether to the target or to FPF readers. It’s also worth keeping in mind that language that strong is likely to create more support that anything else for our beleaguered Road Commissioner.

And another…

You know, Front Porch Forum at times may sound more like a lively Town Meeting than neighbors talking while they rock on their front porches, but in the end we seem to have arrived at a pretty good place. [The critic] has been able to stick to his guns, and most of the rest of us have been able to appreciate the job that the Commissioner and crew have done in this incredible spring. I find that I no longer feel like saying “by all means, Tim, sell and leave” – which, I guess, is the point of having discussions.

And finally…

Two more cents worth on roads, FPF, and a longtime journalist’s perspective.

FPF is a medium that cuts both ways, as we discovered in the last week. It nicely serves to tie us together and keep us informed, and it can also split us apart. No different from anything else, such as town meeting where you get heated discussions, and yet the technology makes it different because it’s not face-to-face discussion and on the Internet I think folks tend to post with less forethought.

Is it monitored? Yes… the general theory is to not censor opinion, and since folks put their names to things and don’t post anonymously, the theory is that there is accountability and less inclination to personal attacks. So far it has worked pretty well: FPF is in some 50 Vermont towns and working as a model for high-tech community building.

I think what this roads discussion shows is that we are all accountable to use self-regulation and civility as a community, and perhaps more importantly, we must accept our own responsibility as citizens…

One thought is this, though folks on the selectboard have busy lives to lead and this adds one more task: Are you all members of FPF? FPF is a good place to address issues and weigh in in between bi-weekly meetings….

UPDATE: Mike Knutson weighed in about this post on Reimagine Rural.

Posted in: Community Building, Democracy, e-Vermont, Front Porch Forum, Knight Foundation, Local Online, MacArthur Fellows, Neighborhood, social capital, Stories, Vermont


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