by Phil Dodd
Front Porch Forum, the free community-generated online newsletter, has only been serving Montpelier for a couple of years, but 3,500 city residents have already signed up to get its e-mails, and Montpelier members have proven to be the most active posters of messages in the state, according Michael Wood-Lewis, who co-founded Burlington-based Front Porch Forum with his wife Valerie Wood-Lewis.
“Montpelier is an outlier,” Wood-Lewis said. “In the last 30 days, there have been 1,300 postings in Montpelier. We usually consider anything over 60 or 90 postings a month to be a successful forum. Montpelier is at over 10 times that level.”
Part of the reason for the high number of postings is that Montpelier has one forum for the entire city, unlike some other large cities such as Burlington, which are split up into multiple neighborhood forums. But Montpelier also has a relatively high participation rate (by contrast, Barre City, which has more households than Montpelier, has less than a third of the Front Porch Forum members as Montpelier). And Montpelier residents post a lot, to the point that Front Porch Forum has been updating its software to handle the traffic level in Montpelier.
“We were late to come to Montpelier,” Wood-Lewis said. “But Montpelier has embraced Front Porch Forum and put it to hefty use, beyond our expectations. It is one of the places that caused us to evolve and expand what we do. We are now working on new features that we hope will be welcomed.”
Other central Vermont communities have embraced Front Porch Forum as well, perhaps none more so than Calais. The town got a head start, since it had a local online listserv for residents that was in operation for several years; Front Porch Forum replaced it five years ago, before most of the rest of the state had access to Front Porch Forum. Today Calais has 1,200 members, nearly double the total of 680 households in town, according to Wood-Lewis. That means more than one resident is signed up in most Calais households.
Local towns with relatively high participation rates also include East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester, according to Wood-Lewis. Some towns and areas of the state have lower involvement, he said, but all local forums are seeing continual growth.
Those who sign up for a local group get a potpourri of postings from their neighbors (and sometimes local officials). It’s a mix of classified ads, free stuff giveaways, requests to borrow tools, apartment and house ads, event announcements, the occasional political comment and more, including lost dog and cat news.
Front Porch Forum is also often used to seek or give recommendations for house painters, electricians, plumbers, driveway repair services and the like. In that sense, it serves as a free local “Angie’s List,” a national web service where homeowners pay to get home repair service ratings. Users can log onto the website and search the archives for previous recommendations.
Front Porch Forum tries to send out one Montpelier e-mail newsletter a day, at around 5 p.m. But if there is some kind of emergency to report or an urgent message about a lost pet, “we’ll get the word out right away,” Wood-Lewis said. To sign up, go to www.frontporchforum.com and provide your e-mail address.
If the community managers find a reason to question a posting, they will usually bounce it back to the sender and ask them to rewrite it, he said. They try to protect users who post notices like “I’ll be away for two weeks and need someone to take out my garbage,” not realizing that they may be notifying potential burglars as well as neighbors.
Wood-Lewis, who has likened the service to “its own little neighborhood-level internet,” thinks neighborliness has eroded in this country, but believes his creation is countering the trend by bringing people together. “If you are among strangers, you are not going to volunteer for the Girl Scouts,” he has said. Front Porch Forum, which does not allow anonymous postings, is designed to foster a sense of community, he stressed.
At least one sociologist thinks it is succeeding in that mission. Tom Macias of the University of Vermont discussed the website with National Public Radio last spring: “In some social platforms, people have a tendency to build a network by selecting people with similar interests and politics,” he said. “What this is doing is saying, ‘Connect to people who you may not have a lot in common with … but you live next door to them and should get to know them.’” He believes that neighborly interactions open people’s minds and change habits more than cloistered family and friends groups.
Every year, 50 percent of users statewide put up at least one posting, a rate with which Wood-Lewis said he is “thrilled.” On most websites where users generate content, he said, only one percent to 10 percent of users contribute content.
Front Porch Forum has proven particularly useful in emergencies, Wood-Lewis noted, a fact that led directly to every town in Vermont being served by the digital newsletter. During and after Tropical Storm Irene, anecdotal evidence indicates flooded communities that had Front Porch Forum were more resilient and bounced back faster, he said.
That got the attention of the Montpelier-based Vermont Council on Rural Development, which applied for and received a $1.8 million federal disaster relief grant to improve local communication by creating online forums. The Council put the project out to bid, and ended up picking Front Porch Forum, which enabled the firm to update its software and bring the service to all Vermont communities.
The grant money was spent in 2012 and 2013. For on-going funding, the website primarily relies on advertising. Once a year it also “passes the hat” by asking for contributions from members statewide. This year the firm set and recently reached a goal of raising $100,000 in donations. Last year, the amount raised from donations was $75,000.
Front Porch Forum is a for-profit business and contributions are not deductible, so asking for donations is unusual. But other businesses, including this newspaper, have used this model successfully (The Bridge is currently converting to nonprofit status, however). Wood-Lewis said Front Porch Forum members like the forum, and many seem willing to contribute $20 or $50 per year. This helps support its goals of keeping subscriptions free and serving all towns in Vermont, he said.
Front Porch Forum has come a long way since Wood-Lewis and his wife moved to Burlington in 1998 and created an online forum as a way to meet their immediate neighbors. Today, they are the publishers of a unique statewide service that has 113,000 subscribers, double the total of two years ago and one that keeps rising every day.