A Kinder, Gentler Social Network

The Markup

February 5, 2022
By Julia Angwin

Hello, friends,

It was a bad week for Facebook. The social network reported Wednesday that it had lost daily users last quarter for the first time ever. While users were logging out, Apple had been cracking down on privacy, which could cut Facebook’s ad revenue by $10 billion, its parent company, Meta, said in its earnings statement.

Meanwhile, policymakers around the world are taking aim at Facebook’s core business model: collecting data about its users and allowing advertisers to use that information to target their messages.

As Harrison Jacobs reported this week in The Markup, the European Parliament has just endorsed a ban on targeting advertising to minors and a ban on tracking sensitive categories like religion, political affiliation, and sexual orientation. U.S. lawmakers have also proposed a bill banning “surveillance advertising,” and the Federal Trade Commission is seeking public comment on rules that could prohibit surveillance advertising.

“Surveillance advertising is at the heart of every exploitative online business model that exacerbates manipulation, discrimination, misinformation, extremism, and fundamentally violates people’s privacy in ways they would never choose if given a true choice,” said U.S. congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) when introducing the legislation.

Facebook has long portrayed the downsides of its service—the fake news, the clickbait, the outrage cycles, etc.—as unfortunate but unavoidable by-products of the benefits of connecting the world.

But what if there were another way? What if we could have the good parts of social networking without the bad?

To understand what that could look like, I spoke with Michael Wood-Lewis, the founder of Front Porch Forum, a social network serving Vermont with a very different ethos from Facebook’s. The forum bans anonymity, has intensive content moderation, and does not publish posts immediately.

Wood-Lewis founded Front Porch Forum in 2000 with his wife, Valerie, after they had trouble getting to know their new neighbors in Burlington, Vt. It began as an email list called the Five-Sisters Neighborhood Forum, where neighbors could submit posts about their community. Posts included items for sale, lost and found, local political discussions, and event announcements.

The forum was a hit, and in 2006 Wood-Lewis registered FPF as a for-profit, Public Benefit Corporation in Vermont, hired a software engineer to build a formal platform, and expanded to additional neighborhoods.To make money, the company sells ad space to neighborhood businesses and offers subscriptions to local politicians who want to stay informed and reach their constituents.

Usually, posts are distributed in a daily email sent out to community participants. This means that if a person wants to respond to a post, they can either send an email directly to the author or submit a post to be published in the following day’s newsletter.

The forum’s kinder, gentler tone has attracted attention among those who are trying to figure out how to build better online communities. “It appears to have cracked the code of how to build a highly functional local social network,” said Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in a recent podcast.

My interview with Wood-Lewis is below, edited for brevity and clarity.

Michael Wood-Lewis
Michael Wood-Lewis
Angwin: To get us started, how would you describe what Front Porch Forum is accomplishing, and can you talk about your goals?

Wood-Lewis: Our goal is to stimulate people getting more actively involved in real life in their local communities, and we’re using this amazing tool of the internet to help facilitate that. We host an online forum in every community in the state of Vermont, and we have had amazing traction levels. Many towns in Vermont have about 1,000 households, and our average is about 750 participants in our forums.

So at the basic level, what we’re trying to do is have people, instead of using Uber to get a ride to the airport or Yelp for restaurant reviews, go on their local forum and say, “Hey, neighbor, I need a ride to the airport” or whatever it is. Having all those simple exchanges about everyday stuff with clearly identified neighbors leads to an increase in social capital among neighbors.

If we can do this, then when trouble comes, we will be stronger. Studies on disaster response have shown that it’s the communities that have strong social cohesion—where people know each other and are used to working together—that they’re the ones who bounce back quickly. So the goal is to use this online electronic tool to bring people into more regular contact in real life.

Angwin: You have compared Front Porch Forum to a lively local newspaper. Can you explain what you mean?

Wood-Lewis: We’re a big fan of local newspapers, but clearly we are not a newspaper. What I mean is that before the internet, many communities had multiple locally owned and operated newspapers. These newspapers were, in many ways, a hub of each town. In a place like Vermont, you would get the news, but you’d also get gossip, sports, weather, advertisements, and on and on.

Those newspapers were really part of the heart and soul of each community, and in many places, those newspapers are gone or have shrunk considerably. But also what’s replaced local newspapers is Big Tech, and that’s an awful solution. From our perspective, Facebook and much of Big Tech is exploitive and extractive. So we see ourselves as the other side of that effort. Front Porch Forum is trying to support local institutions and the community in a manner similar to how local newspapers did in the past and do at a lesser level today.

Angwin: Was concern over Big Tech what prompted you to start Front Porch Forum?

Wood-Lewis: We started in 2000, so it was before the popularization of Big Tech. It was a prehistoric age—we were using an email list, an Excel spreadsheet, and a clipboard. My wife and I had an itch for more community; we lived in a terrific neighborhood in Burlington, Vt., but we’d only been there a year or so and were new parents, so we needed connection.

I was involved with an early web 1.0 startup and thought, Hey, this crazy tool I’m using at work, maybe we could use it to help solve this problem we’re having. So we started this Listserv in our neighborhood with 500 households, and it had an amazing impact. It was so bizarre. Within a year a glossy home living magazine had written a feature article on our neighborhood as being a super community-oriented place, and people pointed to Front Porch Forum (well, the predecessor to Front Porch Forum) as the reason.

After running it for about six years, I left a job leading an environmental nonprofit, incorporated Front Porch Forum, and launched a 50-neighborhood effort on proof-of-concept software that we hired a young guy at the local university to build. We’ve been growing every day since then.

Angwin: One thing that makes Front Porch Forum unique is that you slow down the pace of content—you don’t have threaded or instantaneous online comments happening. Why did you decide to go that route?

Wood-Lewis: We didn’t slow down the pace; we actually set what seemed like a very normal pace in 2000, and we just haven’t changed it. The world sped up considerably. Big Tech sped everything up considerably, and there are certainly wonderful benefits to some of that. A gardener once described Front Porch Forum as slow drip irrigation, compared to the firehose of so much of the rest of the internet. It’s just a little each day, and it keeps things growing on target.

For us, the point is not to have two or three people go back and forth 26 times fighting. Instead, we see ourselves as a starting point and a catalyst for community conversations. It’s not the end place. We don’t want it to be the end. We actually want people to spend less time online, and that’s blasphemy in Silicon Valley.

Angwin: You have some pretty deep-pocketed competitors with companies like Nextdoor. Have they made traction in Vermont, and do you worry about them?

Wood-Lewis: I used to worry about them in the early days, and then I realized this was wholly unproductive. It’s like comparing some little farmer who grows organic spinach to an industrial-sized tobacco farm. It’s like, O.K., yeah, they both grow green things, but, there is really no comparison.

Angwin: You have invested pretty heavily in content moderators. Can you tell me about their role?

Wood-Lewis: Yes, the term we use is online community managers, and we have a group of roughly 10. They review every posting that’s submitted before publication. Their focus is on adding value and making sure our Terms of Use are upheld. So if someone submits a lost dog posting to Town X, and they notice it’s right on a boundary with Towns Y and Z, they’ll help share it to the adjoining towns through our back end.

The other thing they’re watching for is content that does not comply with our rules, which everyone agrees to before they sign up. When a posting doesn’t comply with our Terms of Use, we typically will bounce it back to the user and explain why.

I will say that, since the 2016 election, and even more in the last couple of years, we will get someone going off the deep end at us. But we hold the line; we apply our rules evenly. I know we are doing well when, in the same hour, we’ll get somebody accusing us of being a leftist communist and the next person accuses us of being a right-wing fascist. I think, O.K., we’ve struck the perfect balance. I’m saying that facetiously, but that kind of thing does happen.

Angwin: What type of content is not allowed?

Wood-Lewis: As long as people keep it relatively civil and neighborly and don’t stray into personal attacks, racists rants, or spread disinformation that endangers public health or local democracies, it’s historically been anything goes. I will say, it’s hard to keep the whole community engaged when the conspiracy theories and divisiveness we’re seeing nationally are also playing out on the local level.

Angwin: One final question. During the pandemic there has been a lot of talk about mutual aid and how it is a good model for resilience in the face of hard times. Does mutual aid have a home in Front Porch Forum?

Wood-Lewis: You know it’s interesting. The way we prioritize content is that we actually raise posts that express a need—say someone needs help shoveling their driveway or fixing something. It’s the posts that capture vulnerability and lead to real community building that go to the top. So, in that way I would say Front Porch Forum is itself an integral form of mutual aid. If you’re living in a strong community, that’s what mutual aid is: It’s you need something, you ask for it, and your community supports you.

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