The "Porch" Expands: Vermont's online community builder recruits new neighbors -- and experiences growing pains

Seven Days
By Andy Bromage

When Michael Wood-Lewis and his wife, Valerie, moved to the Five Sisters neighborhood in Burlington, they wanted to meet the people who lived nearby. That's why, in the spring of 2000, they founded Front Porch Forum, a free email newsletter written by, and for, their neighbors. Turns out, it was a hit. Today, more than 98 percent of their urban community subscribes to FPF. In 2006, they expanded the service to neighborhoods all over Chittenden County.

But when it came time to push FPF into rural Vermont, Wood-Lewis was less certain the formula would work. He thought small towns might be too spread out and disconnected to make effective use of the forums. Since then, he's changed his mind.

Why? For an answer, Wood-Lewis points to the example of a multigenerational Zumba class in Huntington on a snowy night in December. With short notice, a local resident managed to pull together 67 participants at a school gymnasium for an impromptu workout. The next day, she gushed about the event on her neighborhood Front Porch Forum.

"You could never do that kind of organizing that quickly and that successfully without the kind of networking tool provided by FPF," wrote Enid Wonnacott.

In the coming year, Wood-Lewis, who owns and moderates FPF, is hoping to replicate the Huntington experience all across Vermont. Front Porch Forum is expanding in a big way, to small towns in every corner of the state. Thanks to $100,000 from the e-Vermont Community Broadband Project, a federally funded program to help rural towns better use the Internet, a dozen new communities joined FPF last year, among them Island Pond, Cambridge and Pownal. A second batch of e-Vermont towns was announced in December and includes Vergennes, Calais and Hardwick.

Today, FPF boasts 23,000 subscribers in 60 Vermont towns who get frequent e-newsletters full of postings from neighbors looking for lost cats, wanting to borrow a lawnmower, or organizing potluck suppers. A waiting list of 1000 people have requested forums in their communities; Wood-Lewis says he's even gotten queries from as far away as Ohio and Australia asking how they can get a similar forum. He's not sure how the Aussies heard of him, but guesses it could be from his columns on Huffington Post, or from the recent profile of FPF in U. S. News & World Report.

"When people outside Vermont hear about what's happening with Front Porch Forum, they're just blown away," Wood-Lewis says during a recent interview at a Burlington cafe.

But as FPF expands, it's also attracted Vermont critics, who complain about its one-size-fits-all approach, and about Wood-Lewis' moderation practices. And whether Vermont's small towns will respond enthusiastically remains to be seen. To date, FPF has largely been confined to more densely populated Chittenden County, where a few tight-knit city blocks can be enough to constitute a forum. Some of the new host communities, such as Canaan and Norton on the Canadian border, are so unpopulated that it takes four or five towns to get enough people for one forum. Wood-Lewis admits the idea probably won't work "uniformly well" everywhere, but believes it can be "helpful" just about anywhere.

"In a community where no one is talking to each other, and Front Porch Forum comes in and gets 10 percent of people talking, that's progress," he says. "In a place where it's a very tight, cohesive community, Front Porch Forum comes along and makes everything happen easier."

Usage rates for FPF remain low in some towns (10 percent in Milton, 16 percent in Colchester), while elsewhere huge numbers of residents have signed up (76 percent in Westford, 71 percent in Richmond), according to figures supplied by FPF.

Middlesex has been one of the successes. The town applied to be an e-Vermont community in 2010 specifically because it wanted Front Porch Forum. Town moderator Susan Clark says that, as Middlesex has "suburbanized," neighbors have lost touch with each other and talk most often at public meetings, usually about something divisive. She saw FPF as a way to engage neighbors on an "everyday trust-building level."

With more than half of its 700 households subscribed, Middlesex has become one of the better-performing towns in just six months since the forum launched. Neighbors e-chat about everything from the weather to why so many logging trucks are driving down town roads, Clark says.

"I was worried it was just going to be yuppies who wanted to sell their kayaks," Clark says. "And it has been yuppies who wanted to sell their kayaks. But it's also been people whose chickens have been laying too many eggs and they wanted to see if anybody wanted eggs."

Users in other towns have been less satisfied. George Cross of Winooski, a former school superintendent who posts frequently on his neighborhood forum, says he asked Wood-Lewis to unite the city on one forum -- rather than the current four -- so residents could more easily share citywide news. Unlike Colchester, South Burlington and Essex, Winooski doesn't have its own newspaper, and Cross thinks FPF could fill the void. But Wood-Lewis refused, Cross says, because he felt a single forum would be too big.

"Michael's got one idea as to what he wants to do, and that's his privilege. He's the guy who put it together," Cross says. "It's just, some of the rest of us have an idea that we could get more use out of it if it was set up a little differently for our situation."

Because Wood-Lewis and his staff of three employees screen every post for tone and content, running the site is incredibly labor intensive. The operation runs on a shoestring, with half the revenue coming from sponsors who advertise on the e-newsletters, and half coming from municipalities that pay a fee -- from 10 cents to 30 cents per capita -- for the ability to post messages citywide across numerous forums.

The site is run for profit, but it doesn't generate a lot of it. Wood-Lewis isn't comfortable discussing financials, but he reveals, "We're not losing money. We're basically at break even."

Since the Forum's debut nearly 11 years ago, Michael and Valerie Wood-Lewis have funded the company out of their own pockets. The first outside capital came from a string of grants: $20,000 from the Case Foundation, $3500 from the Rural Telecommunications Congress and $3000 from the Orton Family Foundation.

Last fall, FPF scored its biggest and most prestigious award yet: a $220,000 Knight News Challenge loan that will pay to build a new software platform for the site, set for launch this fall. Users won't notice much difference with the new platform, Wood-Lewis says, but the software will automate some functions and save staff loads of time.

One condition of the zero-interest Knight loan, which must be paid back in five years, is that the code must be open source, meaning others could copy and roughly replicate Front Porch Forum. Wood-Lewis says he's fine with that. He treats FPF more like a gospel to be spread than a trade secret to be protected.

Perhaps not surprisingly, as its audience has grown, Front Porch Forum has earned its share of detractors who complain of being "censored" for raising sensitive subjects. Some see inconsistent standards in the way the site's moderators police comments and apply its terms-of-use policy. Though FPF requires names and street addresses from participants, discussions can on rare occasions feel like a tamer version of the "rants and raves" section of Craigslist.

Last fall, FPF was dragged into an ugly political fight when Wood-Lewis told a legislative candidate that something she wrote violated the terms-of-use policy and therefore wouldn't be posted on the forum. On Election Day, two supporters of incumbent state Rep. Mark Larson (D-Burlington) posted messages urging voters to re-elect him. The writers also accused his opponent, Republican Angela Chagnon, of running a campaign based on "smears" and on "narrow-minded opinions on a single topic."

Chagnon, a 26-year-old pro-life candidate, was angry the posts went out on Election Day, leaving her no opportunity to respond before polls closed. She wrote a response in which she defended her claims against Larson as "thoroughly researched" and called her critics' characterization of her platform "laughable."

"I covered many topics in my ads and in my debates with Rep. Larson," Chagnon wrote in her reply, which called out her critics by name. "The only 'narrow-minded opinions on a single topic' were my opposition's attacks on my pro-life views. With that said, I congratulate Rep. Larson on his win and urge him to exercise some fiscal restraint in Montpelier."

Deeming the message a "personal attack" on the Larson supporters, Wood-Lewis refused to publish Chagnon's reply. Asked about that today, he says he might have handled the situation better, but questions how much impact the pro-Larson posts actually had.

"I highly doubt, in this one little neighborhood, people read this little posting on the way to the polls and that made a significant difference in the election," Wood-Lewis says.

Elections have proved increasingly tricky for FPF, he notes, as candidates and their supporters try to "milk the system for a little more spotlight." Commenting that "we're learning as we go," Wood-Lewis says that incident and others like it are prompting FPF to revisit its policies on elections.

He doesn't apologize, though, for cracking down on nastiness in forums. Discussions are welcome on almost any topic, he says, as long as writers keep it civil. "When people start attacking neighbors by name, we step in and say, 'Please attack the issue, not the neighbor,'" Wood-Lewis says. "Our mission is not necessarily about protecting one individual's perspective on something. It's about preserving a platform through which neighbors communicate."

Censored comments are rare -- maybe about one in 1000, he guesses. Only 10 users have been banned from the forums outright for continually violating terms of use. The personal touch has a lot to do with that: Wood-Lewis and his moderators review every submission personally and frequently send back ones that cross the line, asking writers to tone them down and resubmit. The moderators spend hours every day communicating with users, answering questions and tailoring the tone of the forums.

As FPF expands, some wonder whether Wood-Lewis and his team can maintain that personal touch. Susan Clark, for one, will be paying attention.

"I just can't imagine he's going to be able to do that," Clark says. "Some of the stuff that they are doing now is going to become automated, and I'll be interested to see if they can maintain what I consider to be an incredible success."

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