Ghost of Midnight

… about neighbors, community and Front Porch Forum

Winooski: Scale and online conversations

Posted on Tuesday, January 15, 2008 by 2 comments

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.

Cathy Resmer, Online Editor, Seven Days

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

Posted in: Citizen Journalism, Community Building, Front Porch Forum, Local Online, Neighborhood, Newspapers, Social Networking, Stories, Vermont


  1. Dan says:

    “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.”

    I’m very curious: where do you reckon the line lies between ‘loud voices’ and ‘small voices’? A certain number of houses? Do you have a system, or just work it out case by case?

  2. Michael says:

    Good question Dan. It’s more of a fuzzy transition zone than a hard thin dividing line… for starters. And it depends on several factors, number of households within the boundaries among the most prominent.

    We’ve been hosting 130 of these online neighborhood forums for a little more than a year (and our flagship neighborhood forum for about eight years)… and it’s given us keen appreciation for the complexity of human participation, communication, community, technology, etc.

    So while an algorithm could be written that might get close, ultimately there’s an art to setting up optimal neighborhood forum boundaries vis-a-vis our service. And our “art,” while viewed favorably by most of our public, is not uniformly successful… some neighborhood forums are hits and others are not… yet. 😉

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