Vermont: Neighbors and Online Networks
When Michael Wood-Lewis and his wife, Valerie, moved from Washington, D.C., to the south end of Burlington, Vermont, in 1998, “we’d landed in what we thought was our dream neighborhood. It was walkable, near the lake, full of trees. But we were having trouble getting to know the neighbors.
One night, we were sitting around the dinner table talking about it. It hit us that in the Midwest and the South, where we were from, people brought cookies to their neighbors. We’d been here a year–where were our cookies?”
Hence plan one. They baked up a batch of Toll House specials and delivered them to the neighbors. “We used china plates, because I figured that way they’d have to return them and we’d get another conversation,” Wood-Lewis recalls. “We never did get them back. I was kind of dumbfounded. But I don’t think it was because people were rude. I think it’s because people are living in a different culture than they were 50 years ago.”
A culture busier and more distracted than ever–busy enough that even in Vermont, the state with the biggest rural population percentage in the Union, famous for its town meetings and its civic engagement, something had changed. So, in 2000, Wood-Lewis cooked up plan two, which may just turn out to be one of the most innovative (and deceptively obvious) uses of the Internet so far. In his hands, the Net has become a way to meet not people half a world away, but half a block.
“I invested $15 at the copy shop, printed up 400 fliers, and put one on every door in our neighborhood,” Wood-Lewis explains. “It pretty much just said, ‘Share messages about lost cats and block parties.’” Thus was born the Five Sisters Neighborhood Forum, which he ran as a volunteer effort for six years. “It took about five minutes a day, and I was already on the computer anyway,” he notes. Every evening he’d compile the five or six messages that had arrived at his inbox during the day and send them out in a single e-mail bulletin. That was it.
Someone would write in: “Neighbors, FYI: Late last night I observed a large possum ambling across my front yard. Not as bad as a skunk, but I understand that possums can damage gardens and dig up lawns.” Twenty-four hours later, another neighbor would respond: “They have very soft feet that aren’t good for digging and aren’t likely to cause lawn damage–and they’re very clean animals and spend much of their rest time grooming themselves.”
Meanwhile, someone else had pruned his apples trees and wanted to share the news that he had kindling piled up on the back porch free for the taking. Down the street someone’s car had been broken into: only thing taken was a gym bag filled with “my shoes, some sweaty clothes, and a couple of issues of The New Yorker. If anyone finds it dumped in their shrubbery, let me know.”
Forget the World Wide Web–this one stretched barely four blocks. And no video, no rating systems, no celebrities, no hyperlinks. Just the daily rhythm of neighborhood life. “It grew steadily, from 10 or 20 percent of the neighborhood to the point where by 2006 we had 90 percent of the neighborhood signed up,” says Wood-Lewis.