BRATTLEBORO—Over the past couple of years, the state has been working to bring universal broadband Internet service to Vermont.
At the same time, it has also been working to find ways to use the technology to foster community.
Front Porch Forum (www.frontporchforum.com) is a free, Vermont-based, privately operated online service that started in a few neighborhoods in Burlington in 2006, spread out through Chittenden County, and now has about 60,000 participating members, mostly in the northern part of the state.
The hyper-local news service allows neighbors in a town to connect with one another to share information such as recommendations for a baby sitter, details about a lost pet, upcoming local events, and other community news.
And, during times of crisis, such as the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene two years ago, Front Porch Forum became a clearinghouse for information and a place for volunteers to offer help to those who needed it.
Its performance during Irene caught the attention of the Vermont Council on Rural Development and its Vermont Digital Economy Project, which in September provided a $361,500 grant from federal disaster relief funds to enable Front Porch Forum to become available in every town in the state.
“The basic premise is that when neighbors are in regular communication with each other, people feel more connected to where they live, and get more involved in the community,” said Front Porch CEO Michael Wood-Lewis, who co-founded the service with his wife, Valerie Wood-Lewis.
The service is moderated, and posters have to use their real names. Wood-Lewis said this is done to keep posts civil and focus on constructive dialogue.
“There are debates on town issues on some of the forums, but we’ll step in when things start going off the rails,” he said.
Guilford and Marlboro are among the first Windham County towns to sign up, Wood-Lewis said. “There is no cost to the town or for residents to sign up and use it. Once 100 residents join, local members will start to receive the regular collection of digital postings. It’s that simple.”
Also, the messages are sent to members of a town forum in a plain-text email format, so that even someone with dial-up Internet service can access the information. The general frequency is that when there are at least four new posts on a given day, an email will go out to subscribers, but if there is pressing information, it will go out immediately.
“We know people are struggling with bandwidth, so we purposely came up with this design,” he said. “It works just as well on dial-up as on a fast connection. This way, we can get more people to sign up. This service doesn’t work unless you have a critical mass of participants.”
Some former participants who were booted from the site maintain that Front Porch’s moderation policies inhibit free speech. Wood-Lewis makes no apologies for the practice.
“Most of the time it’s simple neighbor-to-neighbor information,” he said. “But we draw the line when it comes to ongoing debate. We want to keep discussions positive.”
Despite all the national attention it has received over the past seven years, and grants from digital nonprofit heavyweights such as the Knight Foundation, Wood-Lewis said the growth for Front Porch Forum has been slow, but steady.
“Watching the service change and evolve has been fun,” he said. “We’re addressing a basic need in our culture: the need to stay connected and be part of a community.”