September 23, 2014

Online service builds neighborhood connections

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Thousands sign up for Front Porch Forum

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Many have remarked on the increasing social isolation of Americans. The Internet is sometimes blamed, with critics saying it encourages interaction among far-flung strangers while reducing time spent with next-store neighbors.

But a free online service by Burlington resident Michael Wood-Lewis could turn that conventional wisdom about the Internet on its head.

Front Porch Forum (www.frontporchforum.com) is an e-mail newsletter that connects neighbors in Williston and throughout Chittenden County. Those who sign up receive regular messages containing recent posts only from neighbors. The messages can be anything from someone trying to find a car seat for their child to commentary on a neighborhood controversy.

“Our goal is that people feel like they know their neighbors,” Wood-Lewis said.

Wood-Lewis moved with his wife, Valerie, from Washington, D.C. to the Five Sisters neighborhood in Burlington several years ago. After learning he had missed a block party, he wondered how he could improve communication and foster friendships in his neighborhood.

“We were having a heck of a time meeting our neighbors,” he said. “It’s not that it was an unfriendly place – quite the opposite. It’s just that people were busy and on the run.”

So he decided to start a neighborhood e-mail list. Now more than 90 percent of the 350 households in Five Sisters subscribe.

The effort was so successful that he decided to launch Front Porch Forum last year, a Web site that allows people in other towns like Williston to sign up. Now more than 130 neighborhood forums cover every address in the county.

Sitting in his sunny kitchen last week, Wood-Lewis displayed on his laptop computer maps showing the location of each forum. Boundaries were outlined in red and each had a little bubble containing the number of members.

Roughly 3,300 households have signed up, about 7 percent of the county, Wood-Lewis said. In Burlington, some 15 percent of households are members.

In Williston and other outlying towns, the numbers are smaller, at least so far. Only about 9 percent of households in Williston have subscribed.

Brennan Woods, the town’s largest subdivision, is the only neighborhood with large numbers. About 85 percent of the households there are signed up.

That high percentage was achieved thanks to the Brennan Woods Homeowner’s Association, which sent out a group e-mail to all residents saying they would be signed up to Front Porch Forum unless they opted out. No one did.

“Instant critical mass was achieved,” Wood-Lewis said, noting that he is willing to work with other homeowner associations to spur sign-ups.

Lisa Roy, treasurer of the Brennan Woods Homeowner’s Association, said the neighborhood was a good candidate for Front Porch Forum because the vast majority of residents use e-mail. She said the service supplements newsletters sent out by the association.

The forum, which started in the fall, has seen limited activity to date. “My guess is that most people read them, but there’s not a lot of people posting yet,” Roy said.

However, the forum has served as a neighborhood watch, with a post telling people to be on the lookout for teenagers ringing doorbells, Roy said. The Williston Police Department has been asked to use the forum to notify residents about break-ins or other crimes in the neighborhood.

Brennan Woods resident Marty Bonneau submitted a post asking for advice on deep-frying turkey and another one asking for help with a bottle drive.

“I really see it as beneficial because a lot of people are online here,” said Bonneau, who is vice president of the homeowner’s association. “At least for the little things, it’s getting more information out there than usual.”

Front Porch Forum contrasts with other online services such as MySpace because it is narrowly tailored to specific neighborhoods. Only residents can access their neighborhood’s forum, and can send messages only to the group as a whole. All posts are periodically condensed into a single e-mail message and sent to forum members, avoiding a flooded in-box.

Also contributing to the community feel is the fact that all posters are identified by name, street and e-mail address. That helps keep inappropriate messages to a minimum, Wood-Lewis said. He said he has only removed a couple of the thousands of messages posted since the service started.

A typical message falls into the “my cat is lost” category, which includes people looking for help from neighbors in finding some item or service, Wood-Lewis said. But more importantly that type of interaction leads to people getting to know each other and sometimes meeting in person.

“When these things start working, you’re dealing with your neighbors,” he said. “Neighbor-to-neighbor connections grow and multiply.”

How much the venture will grow remains an open question. Wood-Lewis, who previously worked as the executive director for a regional trade association, said running Front Porch Forum has become a full-time job. The only revenue so far has been $50 from a couple of Google advertisements.

But he hopes to sell more ads in the future, perhaps to small businesses that can’t afford the rates charged by large publications but want to target specific neighborhoods.

In the meantime, Wood-Lewis said he is excited about building a sense of community throughout Chittenden County – one e-mail at a time.

“I see it as having a huge potential to spread,” he said.

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