Vermont Neighbors and Online Networks | How New England Can Save the World
That’s when Cottage Living magazine included the area in its list of the 10 best neighborhoods in the country: “And the reporter called me and he said that everywhere else in the country people would have dozens of different reasons why their place worked. But here, almost everyone put the e-mail thing on the list. That’s what gave me the confidence.”
The confidence to quit his job and start offering the service across all of Chittenden County, Vermont’s most populous. Within two years, Front Porch Forum (FrontPorchForum.com) was reaching 15,000 households and participating in more than 100 neighborhood nets; last fall it expanded into Grand Isle County.
Some nets are in inner-city neighborhoods, where the main topics are how to fight graffiti and drive away drug dealers; some are in rural towns where the messages include: “We have four Indian Runner drakes whom we expected to be females and lay beautiful round eggs. Instead we have these guys who really need some girls!”
This sounds like the stuff you’d see in the letters-to-the-editor column, or on the bulletin board at the supermarket–and it is. But now it comes in an easy-to-use daily update that somehow breaks down barriers. “My sense was that this skill of neighborliness had eroded,” says Wood-Lewis, citing data such as Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam’s famous book Bowling Alone. “If you could increase social capital in a neighborhood–that is, your network of whom you know and how well you know them–then your involvement increases. If you’re among strangers, you’re not going to volunteer for the Girl Scouts.”
Sound theoretical? Not long after he’d launched his first forum, one of Wood-Lewis’s neighbors was moving from an apartment to a house across the street. “They figured they could do it by themselves, but at the last minute decided they had a couple of big items they’d need some help with,” he says. “So they put a note on the forum saying, ‘Come Sunday at 2′–and 36 people showed up. People didn’t just move the chest of drawers and the bed–they organized into teams and boxed up the entire contents of the house, moved it across the street, and unpacked it, all in 90 minutes. I mean, someone pulled the picture hooks out of the wall in the old place and spackled over the holes. All the cardboard boxes were broken down and ready for recycling.”
The lucky couple had known at best a dozen of those people before, says Wood Lewis: “But now they know them all. When they push a stroller around the block after that, it’s like living in a community. And when the call comes to spend a Saturday helping put in a new park or something, you know they’re going to be there.”
The genius of the system flows from the ways it’s unlike the rest of the Web. Instead of going global, each forum is limited to a neighborhood of about 400 homes. Instead of the anonymity that lets Internet users happily flame one another, all the folks participating in these forums clearly identify themselves. “I designed it to be as simple as possible–to use plain-text e-mail, so that everyone can take part,” Wood-Lewis explains. “I just heard from an 80-year-old grandmother who’d signed up. She said, ‘We’ve been here 50 years, but all the people we know have moved away, and we want to stay connected.’ That’s the kind of person we want to serve.”
The biggest difference between Front Porch Forum and the rest of the Web, though, is that its ultimate goal is to get you out from in front of the screen and into the world around you. “The real feedback loop is on the main street of town,” says Erik Filkorn, in his eighth year on the select board in Richmond, Vermont. “You’ll be coming out of the store and someone will say, ‘Hey Erik, I saw the thing you wrote. Here’s what I think.’ You’re not just creating an avatar and hanging out in a singles bar in Second Life–not that I would do that. But this is very much grounded in the flesh-and-blood community.”
So grounded that it may already be the most important source of information for many Vermonters, who have watched their main newspapers lay off reporters and shrink coverage. “One afternoon last year the state closed our main bridge as unsafe,” recalls Filkorn. “As a member of the town government, I sent an extra to Michael Wood-Lewis, and he got the word right out. I think more people got the news that they’d have to change their morning commutes from him than from the traditional media.”
But it works in emergencies only because people use it every day–the steady stream of lost cats, and people looking for summer jobs for their teenagers, creates the community that people then rely on at more crucial moments. “It’s fun, mostly,” says Filkorn. “I remember a post from a guy who said he was going to a wedding and needed a tuxedo, size 40. Well, I had one. Derek took it, and he returned it to my office, dry-cleaned.”
From tuxedoes to potholes, from potholes to politics … Susan Comerford, a longtime community organizer and now associate dean for academic affairs and research at the University of Vermont’s College of Education and Social Services, calls it “the best community organizing tool that’s come along in the last 30 or 40 years.” To understand its importance, says Comerford (who started posting on the forum the day she needed a recommendation for a carpenter), you have to think about what’s happened in the American economy in recent decades.