Mention the Internet, and most people think of the World Wide Web, of reaching out across the globe for news, long-lost friends, or low-price bargains. But in dozens of Vermont towns, residents are using the web to connect with their back-fence neighbors. In an era where national and global information is broadly available online, it seems that few of us know our neighbors and what’s going on down the street.
My name is Michael Wood-Lewis, and my wife, Valerie, and I saw an opportunity four years ago and created Front Porch Forum (FPF) to serve our home region in northwest Vermont. Amazingly, nearly half of the state’s largest city now subscribes to FPF. The sense of community here is thriving and winning national recognition, including a 2010 Knight News Challenge award.
Creating Real Neighbors
It’s astounding what a couple minutes per day of neighborhood news and chatter in a person’s inbox can do. People tell me that they lived on their street for years not knowing a soul. Now, since Front Porch Forum kicked in, those familiar strangers have become real neighbors.
Each neighborhood has its own online space and the whole region is blanketed with a network of more than 100 neighborhood forums. People post about lost pets, block parties, car break-ins, plumber recommendations, helping ailing neighbors, local politics, school plays and much more. All ages partake, from seniors in their 80s seeking community support to stay in their homes to teenagers looking for summer jobs.
In one rural area, people used FPF to find a pair of spooked horses who jumped their fence, then pitched in to build a better enclosure as a gift to the owners. In an urban neighborhood, residents rallied around a mother who was assaulted in the park, and eventually got the city to improve safety conditions there. And in a different community, a young family asked for a couple volunteers to help move their household into new digs across the street — 36 neighbors showed up! Not only was the job done quickly, but now this family knows three dozen people in the surrounding blocks.
“This small family business turns the Internet on its head,” says FPF member and University of Vermont associate dean Susan A. Comerford. “The web offers countless ways to waste time, but Front Porch Forum actually pushes people offline and onto the sidewalks to chat with neighbors, face to face.”
And that leads people to get more involved in their communities, as the chat evolves into action. In one survey, an incredible nine out of ten FPF members report becoming more involved in local issues due to this free service.
“Front Porch Forum is a post-modern return to citizen democracy,” says Comerford. “This may well be the most important advance in community development strategies in decades.”
The Knight News Challenge award will allow us to rebuild FPF’s current proof-of-concept software to better provide for our subscribers. We’ll then expand to all 251 towns in Vermont, and prepare to offer Front Porch Forum to communities outside of Vermont in 2011.
I look forward to reporting on our progress here, and I hope to hear from readers in the comments below or via FPF’s website.