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John and Susan lived in their neighborhood for a few years. They liked their home. But they didn’t know their neighbors. There was the guy across the street who drove a blue Subaru (polite nods and waves) and the lady next door with Max, the black Lab (she called herself “Max’s Mommy”). John and Susan both worked full time and had long commutes. They spent most of their non-work time ferrying their two kids around to school, sports, lessons, camps, play dates. Evenings were reserved for screen time...TV, homework, keeping up with old friends, texting, etc.
When local election time rolled around, they rarely voted. They typically weren’t aware of the date, let alone the issues or candidates on the ballots. Susan and John both had volunteered at a homeless shelter when they lived in a different city, but now when the local food shelf was looking for new board members, they didn’t know about it. Truth be told, it was easier to become a fan of a relevant Facebook page or sign a national e-petition sent by an old colleague.
Does this sound familiar? Americans move more often, live alone more, work more hours, solo car-commute more, and spend more time with electronic devices than ever before. And the toll is evident in our local communities and on the empty residential sidewalks of many of our towns. Where are the people? Where are the neighbors?
My wife, Valerie, and I faced a similar situation ten years ago in our Burlington, Vermont neighborhood. So for six years we ran a neighborhood email list that had a miraculous effect. People spoke up! People got to know each other better. New neighbors felt immediately included welcomed. Most importantly, this simple electronic tool led to more face-to-face time among neighbors.
Then, in 2006, we launched Front Porch Forum to provide a similar service to more than 100 adjacent neighborhoods in our area. Today, we host a network of online neighborhood forums that blankets 25 Northwest Vermont towns. Amazingly, 19,000 local households subscribe, including more than 40 percent of dozens of neighborhoods and small towns.
People use the service to find lost cats, report car break-ins, give away strollers, debate speed bumps, rally volunteers for park clean-ups and more. While “safe” postings about pets and babysitting are common, the more successful areas grow into more challenging topics—from school budget debates to drug-related crime, from racism to supporting a terminally ill neighbor. Members have posted 90,000 messages and there’s something new and different every day in one neighborhood or another.
FPF members report feeling more connected to neighbors and more tied into their community than they did previously. FPF aims to grab a couple minutes of people’s attention each day where they already are (online!) for neighborhood chatter. Every posting comes from a clearly identified nearby neighbor. This daily dose of neighborhood news adds up over time and changes people’s perception of the place they live. Familiar strangers become neighbors. A place to live becomes “my neighborhood.” This leads to people getting more involved. Indeed, 93 percent of survey respondents reported increased civic engagement after signing up with Front Porch Forum!
But hosting all of these neighborhood online spaces isn’t simple. Attracting and keeping a crowd is a real challenge. Keeping the tone civil and constructive (and full of vitality) can be tricky, too. Through our ten years of experience in hosting online neighborhood discussions, we’ve learned dozens of critical tactics—each rich with nuance—that add up to successful forums in most neighborhoods most of the time.
We’re expanding to other Vermont towns now, and we look forward to developing our software and service so that Front Porch Forum will be available to any locale with the desire to help its neighbors connect and build community.