Back in the late 1990s, when Valerie and Michael Wood-Lewis first moved to the Five Sisters neighborhood of Burlington, Vermont, they were having a hard time getting to know their new neighbors. “We wanted to get involved locally, but we were having a heck of a time breaking in,” Michael Wood-Lewis recalls. When delivering cookies didn’t even work, the couple tried a new approach—they delivered fliers announcing a brand-new community e-mail newsletter to all five hundred houses in the neighborhood.
This time, the response was dramatic. “About one hundred households signed up in the first week or two, and in short order they all did,” says Wood-Lewis. Now Front Porch Forum is quickly growing in neighborhoods around New England.
How It Works
“The user experience on Front Porch Forum is pretty simple,” Wood-Lewis continues. “You sign up, and then once a day a neighborhood newsletter arrives in your e-mail inbox. The letter contains postings from neighbors sharing whatever they want: a lost pet; someone seeking a recommendation for a good roofer, plumber or tax preparer; a teenager looking for summer work; somebody announcing a new event or program.” There are political discussions about local issues, and “gratitude” postings—things like, “Thank you to the person who shoveled the walk in front of the nursing home,” or what have you.
By now you might be thinking, it sounds good, but how exactly is Front Porch Forum different from something like Facebook or Craigslist?
“In a lot of social media environments, the bulk of the content comes from 1 to 10 percent of the membership, with the vast majority staying silent or just observing; but in Front Porch Forum, 50 percent of the members contribute content, so it’s a fundamentally different experience,” Wood-Lewis states, adding that in some Vermont communities it’s not unusual to have three-quarters of the households participating, and that statewide a full third of all households are signed up.
“The general vibe is of a digital block party where everybody is wearing a nametag. Occasionally someone over by the grill gets arguing about the school budget or whatever, but mostly the discussion is civil, neighborly, fun and useful,” Wood-Lewis explains. “If somebody posts on Front Porch Forum, they generally follow up in person.
“As an example, somebody wanted those used cardboard rolls from toilet paper and paper towels for a school project. She needed about fifty of them. Where are you going to get those, right? So she put the word out on her Front Porch Forum, and lo and behold she heard from about twenty people, who all tromped over to her house in the snow, bringing three or four rolls each. She baked some cookies and gave a few to each person, along with a big thank-you and a friendly chat in the front hall for a few minutes.
“That in itself is not a huge deal, but multiply it by a thousand times per month across the state, and you have this image of community as a kind of web and each one of these interactions as a strand in that web, making it stronger and more interconnected than it was before.”
As another member recently recounted, “I read the local newspaper and I read my Front Porch Forum. In the paper the definition of news is often something bad that’s happened—an automobile accident, crime, etc. On Front Porch Forum it feels like most of the content is positive and helpful. I read the local paper and I feel kind of worn out. I read Front Porch Forum and I feel uplifted because it’s people saying thank you and helping each other out.” Not to mention the homemade cookies.