News

Front Porch Forum developing search tool

New policies born out of pandemic, racial reckoning 

BY JASON STARR 

Observer staff 

Front Porch Forum plans to enable search capabilities across its platforms in the coming months, allowing users to search previous posts, advertisements, calendar events and business listings using keywords. 

“A lot of times people will say, ‘I know somebody said something about a good plumber and I can’t remember where it was, or when’ so they need search. We’re working on that universal search tool now,” Front Porch Forum co-founder Michael Wood-Lewis said in a March 30 interview. 

Information about the tool will be displayed in Front Porch Forum newsletters once it is live. The new capability is among a handful of initiatives the Westford-based company is undertaking as it continues to evolve as a Vermont-focused social medium. 

Founded in 2006, Front Porch Forum is an email newsletter provider for towns and neighborhoods and also maintains a mobile app and website. It employs 24 people. A March job posting seeking a new “director of product” says the company is “entering a new stage of our development.” The new position will be part of the executive team working on the company’s “strategic direction and growth.” 

Wood-Lewis said the company is working to build out its local events calendar and a business and non-profit directory, in addition to the new search tool. 

“We need to keep changing and evolving,” he said. “We spend a lot of time looking at our data and looking at our member feedback and figuring out how to improve the user experience all while keeping it incredibly simple. 

It’s the simplicity that makes Front Porch Forum newsletters an oasis in the digital landscape — where no live links, photos or videos can be posted. That won’t be changing in the foreseeable future, Wood-Lewis said. Advertisers who are used to using logos, photos and videos for promotion elsewhere are comfortable with the text-only Front Porch Forum format, he said. 

As the host of a forum where residents communicate with neighbors, the company created policies last year related to how racial and public health issues can be discussed on the platform. The new policies can be viewed as part of the company’s terms of use (www.frontporchforum.com/terms-of-use). 

The “COVID-19 Content Policy” created in 2020 banned the posting of “false or misleading medical or scientific information; medical or scientific information that is not clearly attributed; suggestions that contradict CDC, WHO, VDH guidelines; claims regarding cures or remedies for coronavirus not supported by CDC or WHO; discriminatory or xenophobic language; or claims that have been debunked as false conspiracy theories.” 

In its statement on racial justice developed last year, the company bans racist postings, but leaves room for postings that may be viewed as offensive. 

“Discussions around race, and racial justice, are challenging,” the policy states. “FPF’s mission includes making space for those difficult conversations.” 

Front Porch Forum staff review every posting before publication, Wood-Lewis said. 

“We’ve had to do a lot of evolving of our moderation model through 2020 as all sorts of new challenges came to our society — conspiracy theories, racism and the pandemic,” he said. “We don’t have it all figured out, but it’s definitely an area where we are very actively investing and working on. 

“We’ve always had rules that say you can’t post anything illegal. We don’t permit personal attacks. We don’t permit racism But that all got much more nuanced and challenging and fraught in 2020.” 

Like social media giants Facebook and Twitter, Front Porch Forum is protected by a controversial provision in federal law known as Section 230. The law provides legal immunity for online platforms from being liable for damage caused by things posted on their platforms. In other words, they are not considered publishers of what is posted. 

But unlike Facebook and Twitter, Front Porch Forum voluntarily takes on the responsibility of a publisher by reviewing and approving each post. 

“We are engaged in trying to make thoughtful, consistent decisions, day in and day out,” Wood-Lewis said. “We get stuff wrong occasionally of course. And we try to learn from it and take responsibility and do better the next time.”