This blog post is part of a series, looking at the public interest internet—the parts of the
internet that don’t garner the headlines of Facebook or Google, but quietly provide public
goods and useful services without requiring the scale or the business practices of the tech giants.
In the last installment, we discussed platforms that tie messaging apps together. These let users chat with more people more easily, no matter where they are or what app they’re using, making it possible for someone using the latest chat tool, like Slack, to talk to someone on a decades old-platform like IRC. But localized services matter to the public interest internet as well. While forums like Nextdoor have drawn attention (and users) for offering neighborhood communication regardless of your zip code, other services that predate those—and get around many of their controversies—do exist.
Is the best of the Internet doomed to exist in just some narrow strongholds?
This post will be about two very different social networks:
The first is Front Porch Forum, a Vermont-local platform that is “a micro hyperlocal social network,” tied to local services and with a huge percentage of uptake of local users. A caveat that many find more freeing than restricting: comments, replies, and posts don’t reach their neighbors until the following day, in a newsletter-style digest.
The other is Pantip, which is one of the top ten websites in Thailand. It’s a giant compared to Front Porch Forum, but its ability to persist—and stay independent—make it a worthwhile subject.
Cofounders Michael and Valerie Wood-Lewis, of Burlington, Vermont, began Front Porch Forum in the early 2000’s by passing out flyers in their neighborhood. The goal wasn’t to build a company, or create a startup—it was to meet their neighbors. Users of other neighborhood sites will be familiar with the benefits of a local online community—posts ranged early on from people looking to borrow tools to helping one another find lost pets.
As the site grew, others outside of Burlington asked to join. But Wood-Lewis turned them down, opting to focus the community on his area only. At first, he created a how-to guide for those who wanted to build their own local network, but eventually, the site allowed anyone in Vermont to join (it’s now expanded to some parts of New York and Massachusetts).
But even as it's grown, the focus has been on public good—not profit. Instead of increasing the amount of posts users can make to drum up more content (and space for ads), the site has continued functioning effectively as an upgrade to its earlier listserv format. And rather than collect data on users beyond their location (which is necessary to sign up for the site and communicate with neighbors), or plastering it with advertising, Wood-Lewis uses Front Porch Forum’s hyperlocal geography to its advantage:
“We have been pretty much diametrically opposed to the surveillance business model from the beginning. So our basic business model is we sell ads, advertising space to local businesses and nonprofits. The ads are distributed by geography, and by date, and that's it. There's no, "Yeah, let's check people's browser history, or let's pry into people's lives." We do not do that.”
These simple ads make it easy for local businesses and others to offer services to their community without hiring a graphic designer or having to learn anything complicated about online advertising, like how to make contextual ads that rely on perceived user interests (and data).
In contrast to the well-known issues of racism and gatekeeping on Nextdoor or Ring’s Neighbors app, Wood-Lewis attributes the general positivity of the site to a variety of factors that are all baked into the public interest mindset: slow-growth, a focus on community, and moderation. But not necessarily that kind of moderation—while posts are all reviewed by moderators, and there are some filtering tools, posts typically come out as a newsletter, once a day, by default. If you want to yell at your neighbor, you’ve got the option to mail them directly through the site, but you’re probably better off knocking on their door. Users say that while most of the internet “is like a fire hose of information and communication, Front Porch Forum is like slow drip irrigation.”
While Front Porch Forum has grown, it’s done so through its own earnings and at its own pace. While many of the most popular social networks need to scale to perform for investors, which relies on moving fast and breaking things, Front Porch Forum could be described as a site for moving slowly and fixing things.
Staying Afloat Despite Free Speech Challenges
On the other side of the world, the forum Pantip, a sort of Thai reddit, has grown to be one of the most popular sites in the country since its creation in 1997. Pantip's growth (and survival) is all the more significant because Thailand has some of the harshest legal frameworks in the world for online speech. Intermediaries are strictly liable for the speech of their users, which is particularly troubling, since the crime of criticizing members of the royal family (“lese majeste”) can lead to imprisonment for both poster and site administrator.
As a result, the site’s strict rules may seem overbearing to Western users—participating in the upvoting and points system requires validating your identity with a government ID, for example—yet the site remains popular after over twenty years of being run without outside investment. Pantip has navigated treacherous waters for a very long time, and has even had parts of the site shut down by the government, but it chugs along, offering a place for Thai users to chat online, while many other sites have been scuppered. For example, many newspapers have shut down comment sections for fear of liability. Though this legal regime puts Pantip’s owner in danger, particularly during regime changes—he still won't sell out to bigger companies: “Maybe I’m too conservative. I don’t believe that internet [business] needs a lot of money to run. Because we can do internet business with a very small [investment].”
Models for the Future?
Neither Front Porch Forum nor Pantip get the headlines of a Facebook or a Twitter—but not because they're unsuccessful. Rather, their relatively specific rules and localized audiences make them poor models for scaling to world domination. To a certain extent, they benefit from not garnering huge amounts of publicity. In Front Porch Forum's case, mass appeal is irrelevant — the site’s membership spreads by word of mouth in a local context, and advertising revenues grow with it. For Pantip, it's better to keep a low profile, even if hundreds of thousands of users are in on the secret. And both sites are proof that social media doesn't have to be run by venture capital-funded, globally-scaled services, and that we don’t need a Facebook to give people in local areas or in developing countries forums to connect and organize.
But is part of their success due to Front Porch Forum and Pantip’s lack of interest in disrupting the tech giants of the world? If the Public Interest Internet is an alternative to Facebook and Google, is it really a viable future for just a few lucky groups? Is the best of the Internet doomed to exist in just some narrow strongholds? Or can we scale up the human-scale: make sure that everyone has their own Front Porch, or Pantip close to hand, instead of having to stake everything in the chilly, globalised space of the tech giants?