The Internet's Missing Link in the Age of COVID-19

Civic Hall

May 22, 2020

By: Micah L. Sifry

The following is a portion of the entire article written, which features Front Porch Forum.

As we sit in our homes and, where necessary, go to work, practicing physical distancing as best we can, I believe we are also suffering because of how the last fifteen years of the Internet’s development and use have reordered our social lives, organizing us into virtual verticals whose data is harvested by Big Tech corporations and whose civic energies are optimized by Big Email advocacy organizations and undermining our natural tendency to form communities of purpose with the people we live near.... Today, when one of the things we need most—the ability to associate with the people who are physically near to us—is cut off thanks to the Great Pandemic, our collective-action problem-solving abilities have been badly stunted.


In all my years of reporting on how we use tech in civic life, one platform has stood out for how it has successfully fostered healthy community engagement while reaching significant scale: Vermont’s Front Porch Forum. Seventy percent of the state’s 260,000 households have an account on one of FPF’s local town or neighborhood forums, which are in every part of the rural state. Two years ago, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released an in-depth study of FPF’s users, finding that their daily use of the site led to increased trust in their neighbors, increased interest in civic life, greater participation in local government, and increased optimism about the future. “Witnessing everyday acts of neighborliness is a powerful driver of both online and offline community engagement,” the study concluded.

Last week, I checked in with its founder Michael Wood-Lewis and his chief innovation officer, Jason Van Driesche, to find out how they are weathering the current storm. After a brief dip in the site’s fortunes when the state went into lockdown in March, they were happy to report that even though no one was posting yard sales or local events, the type of information that has always been FPF’s bread-and-butter, user engagement was up. The number of net new signups per day doubled during the first weeks of the crisis, and posting is up considerably over the seasonable average, along with open rates.

Wood-Lewis and Van Driesche are also gratified to report that people are using the forum’s daily email bulletins to organize help for neighbors, share vital public health information, and fight isolation. They’ve decided to have their paid community moderators screen out misinformation about COVID, which Wood-Lewis said is “usually people getting stuff off of Facebook and sharing it with good intentions.” They’re working on an array of service improvements, and also thinking hard about how to support the 10,000 local businesses, thousands of local officials and hundreds of nonprofits that use the site. “On a daily basis, most of the people in our state are giving us five to ten minutes of their attention,” Wood-Lewis noted. But he and his team are frustrated that so much of FPF’s core mission, which is to bring neighbors together face-to-face, is stymied by the pandemic. “We know we’re successful when those real in-person things happen,” he adds, so his team is trying to highlight local initiatives like safe scavenger hunts for kids and community claps for frontline workers.

Front Porch Forum’s model works because it keeps its forums to human size and speed, and it has paid moderators perusing every post before they reach subscribers. A typical instance has 500 to 1,000 people on it, all from the same town or neighborhood, and all verified, using their real names. Everyone sees the same content at the same time, Van Driesche pointed out; there’s no microtargeting of content. So while people still are people, and they may post things that get on their neighbors’ nerves, the general tenor of the site is “let’s pull together instead of knocking each other down.”

To read the entire article, click here.

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