The Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure

@ UMass Amherst

Reimagining the Internet

Michael Wood-Lewis, Front Porch Forum

February 10, 2021

Michael Wood-Lewis joins us to talk about Vermont’s Front Porch Forum, the hyperlocal social network he and his wife founded 21 years ago, predating similar platforms offered by Nextdoor and Facebook. It ends up, as he tells us, that the secret to running a healthy online community of neighbors is healthy moderation and non-surveillant advertising.

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Welcome, everybody. I'm Ethan Zuckerman. This is Reimagining the Internet. We are visiting today with Michael Wood-Lewis. He's the co-founder with his wife, Valerie, of Front Porch Forum, which they founded together in the Five Sisters neighborhood of Burlington, Vermont. Front Porch Forum is a micro hyperlocal social network. It's actually getting a lot of attention these days because it appears to have cracked the code of how to build a highly functional local social network. Michael, we're so thrilled to have you with us.

Michael Wood-Lewis:

Thank you, Ethan. I'm glad to be here.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Can you take us back to 2000 when you started working on this project? What led you to head online to create a space to meet your neighbors?

Michael Wood-Lewis:

Sure. Well, that was a long time ago. I don't know if I can remember much, but let me dust off some of the memories here. My wife and I were relatively new to our town, Burlington, Vermont. We moved here from away. We had a one-year-old, a first child, and we were renters. We had by some good fortune were able to find, housing's very tight here, find a place to rent in a neighborhood that was really known for being friendly and neighborly.

But after a year of living there, we were finding it was tough to break in. People seemed friendly enough. We just were always on the outside looking in. So we tried a few different things, some false starts, to find our way into the inner circle. And finally, I had been working in web 1.0 startup. It's long gone, but thought maybe this internet thing that people are talking about could, this worldwide web could come help my local neighborhood.

Ethan Zuckerman:

When did you have a sense that it was working? Was it a transformation in your and Valerie's lives? Was it the spread from your neighborhood across Burlington? What let you knew that Front Porch Forum had something unique going for it?

Michael Wood-Lewis:

It was in the first couple of weeks, frankly. People signed up in droves very quickly. About a 500 household neighborhood, I printed a stack of flyers out, and stuck one in each front door. I'm no artist, it looked terrible. It was clearly not spam. It was some guy trying something. It took right off and people immediately... We were fortunate. The neighborhood is very friendly, and neighborly, and full of organizer type folks.

So suddenly, instead of having to pull together a list and make 20 calls every time you wanted to do a block party or whatever, you just hit one button, and you'd reach everybody. In between all those organizing activities, there was the lost dog to track down, and a post hole digger to borrow. And, "Hey, is anyone else going to go to the city council meeting on Thursday? Because there's this issue that's important to our neighborhood." So it took off immediately.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So it had real utility for people in terms of people who wanted to interact with their neighbors, whether it was as lightweight as trying to figure out who lost their dog, or to borrow a tool, or whether it was more around things like political organizing. Unlike a lot of other projects, you were using email, which is a universal service online. It's hard to know what networks people will or won't join. But at the end of the day, almost everyone has email.

How did it scale from a neighborhood project to the vast media empire you have right now, stretching all the way from Northern Massachusetts into the wilds of Washington County, New York? For those who don't get the joke, Front Port Forum covers all of Vermont, two counties in New York, and one town at the moment in Massachusetts, which is functionally in Vermont.

Michael Wood-Lewis:

Maybe culturally too. It's frontporchforum.com, if folks are interested in looking up more online. We serve all of Vermont, and as you say, some neighboring communities. Our focus though really is Vermont. That's where we all live. I'm joined by 20 colleagues now. Our staff has grown. We're all focused on trying to make our communities marginally better by providing this service day in and day out for what amounts to 20 years now.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I was curious when you decided that it was time to move beyond Burlington? Was the demand of people in neighboring communities wanting to expand Front Porch Forum into their own towns? How did you make that move from a neighborhood, to a city, to the state, and now to neighboring communities?

Michael Wood-Lewis:

We started in our own neighborhood and ran it as a project for six years. I was fully employed, my wife, and we went from one newborn baby over that time period to four, and life was chaotic. In 2006, I left a job leading an environmental nonprofit, and decided to go for it. My wife, Valerie, and I decided to form a business, hire a guy who's a coder, built out a web app around this concept that we've been doing in our own neighborhood for six years. That was the launch of Front Porch Forum as a business and as a countywide effort. We served every, at that next iteration, every town and neighborhood in greater Burlington. There's about 50 neighborhoods.

That kept on for a while. What we found throughout all of this is people would keep approaching us outside of our service area and ask us to... When we were one neighborhood, they would just come and say, "Hey, how do I sign up?" I'd say, "Oh yeah, what street are you on?" "Well no, I'm six towns away, just sounds great. I want to be part of it." I'd say, "Well no, but how about this? I'll help you set up one in your area."

I eventually made a little how to guide, and how to use a free list serve, and how to make a spreadsheet, and all this kind of stuff. This again, this is back in the early 2000s. But what I found was people wouldn't do it, and the few who would, wouldn't succeed socially or technology wise. For whatever reason, I had the right combination of location, and whatever, skills, and attributes that we were able to make a go of it.

That clicked an entrepreneurial thought into place for me of like, "Maybe this is unusual and something we could pursue and help lots of communities." So we went to all of greater Burlington. We grew in fits and starts across the state as communities would come to us. We'd figure out how to go to one more town, one more town. Then in 2013, we made a jump. At that point, we were covering half of the towns, half of the population in Vermont. We worked with a statewide nonprofit and some others to expand to the whole state.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Tell me a little bit about how Front Porch Forum makes money. I assume that you ruthlessly collect all data possible for every subscriber, and then sell it on international marketplaces, so that we can target new emerging patterns of flannel to Vermonters. Is that the essence of it?

Michael Wood-Lewis:

I'm taking notes here. These are some interesting ideas. Yeah, not at all, not at all. That's not our approach. We have been pretty much diametrically opposed to the surveillance business model from the beginning. So our basic business model is we sell ads, advertising space to local businesses and nonprofits. The ads are distributed by geography, and by date, and that's it. There's no, "Yeah, let's check people's browser history, or let's pry into people's lives." We do not do that.

As it turns out, our ads perform exceptionally well. And by the way, they're just plain text, no images, there's no videos, or anything like that. It's very simple, so very low overhead. Small is beautiful for our mindset and including on the business side. So the handyman with the pickup truck, who's looking for more gigs, the small business with three employees, many times they don't want it. They haven't invested. They don't want to invest in graphic design, or online websites, and whatnot. So they'll come to us and we can get them on our service in minutes. People pay close attention to what's going on in their very small community, so the ads get a lot of attention.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It can't be as simple as just being community minded, being concerned about healthy and resilient communities, understanding your advertisers, as well as understanding your markets. Local social networks is the space that's been enormously challenging. For those of us who study the space, networks like Nextdoor are almost notorious for their problems with racism, and racial profiling, and abuse, and polarization.

I think a lot of people look at Front Porch Forum and either dismiss it by saying, "This is Vermont and people are nice. And by the way, it's also really homogenous. And therefore, there just aren't the same tensions that there are elsewhere." Or they end up saying, "It's fine. You can do this in a very small state. It couldn't work anywhere else." Do you have thoughts on whether what you've done could work elsewhere and why so many other projects, whether it's been AOL's Patch, or whether it's some of these very big venture funded projects trying to work in the same space, frankly, have not had the same success that you've managed to have over the last 21 years?

Michael Wood-Lewis:

Sure. It's a terrific question, of course. When we started Front Porch Forum in our own neighborhood, it took off. People said, "Well, of course, that's the one neighborhood in Burlington where this would work." Then we expanded to 15 surrounding neighborhoods and it pretty much worked everywhere. The low income, the high income, the middle, the rural, the urban, the suburban, each in different ways, but they all had different flavors.

Then people said, "Well, that's, that's Chittenden County, that's Greater Burlington, Vermont. That's different than real Vermont out in the sticks and the mountains. We expanded and it took off there. They said, "Well, it won't work in the more conservative politically red parts of the state," and it's taken off there. So every time we thought it might not work as well someplace, it has, but again, that's all Vermont. So I don't know if it would work in the suburbs of Denver or in downtown Oakland. These are open questions.

However, when looking at some other competing services that were, shall we say, inspired by Front Porch Forum, but then they marry that to the big tech VC-backed business model. It was not hard to see, frankly, disaster on the horizon when you looked at early decisions. Early decisions where the marketing ran like an ad for a gated community, a virtual gated community. "Scared of them? Join us and we'll close the gates." The first step they make in every community they expand into is police. It's just a very different starting point. It's not inclusive, it's exclusive.

But it gets to me to a larger point. Many of the examples that you mentioned, they're all premised on the Silicon Valley, VC-backed, big tech mindset of, "Okay, how do we do this? How do we scale? And how do we make a 10 X return in a few years? And basically how do we go in and extract all the wealth and throw the husk to the side of the road?"

So gee, I wonder why it's hard to have a tool that builds healthy local communities with that framework? It's frankly ludicrous that people would imagine you'd get a good end result. It reminds me of healthcare. It's like "Okay, how do we get good outcomes with healthcare? I know let's have this massive system where we have all of the centralization of power, and a few people getting extremely rich, and I'm sure we'll get good outcomes, and we'll have everybody be healthy."

Ethan Zuckerman:

It's interesting that Front Porch Forum hasn't tried to go global. You've got the software, you've got a model. It's quite possible that it could work in the Denver suburbs. My guess at your current rate of expansion, you'll be there in roughly 2120. You seem to be growing this at a very healthy, measured, careful pace to make sure that it's working in the communities that it's working in.

Beyond that, the service itself is slow in the best possible way, which is to say that joining Front Porch Forum is not like drinking from a fire hose. It's much more getting a daily newsletter. Can you talk a little bit about how time plays into questions of moderation and community management on Front Porch Forum? It's really one of the most unique things about the product.

Michael Wood-Lewis:

One of our users, who is very tech savvy, once told me, he said, "Yeah, with the internet being the fire hose of information and communication, Front Porch Forum is like slow drip irrigation." We're trying to grow a garden here, so of course, you don't blast it with the fire hose. That's very apropos. Our model is each small community, each neighborhood, or small town has as their local Front Porch Forum. You can only join if you live there. There's no anonymity. You submit your postings. They're reviewed by our online community management staff, and 99 point something percent just float right through. They're looking to screen out real problematic postings, racism, et cetera.

Then we publish typically one issue a day, so it comes out, think of a newspaper hitting the front porch at dinner time kind of model of yesteryear. Everybody's flipping through and looking at the neighborhood chatter at the same time. If you want to respond, you can respond to the person via email directly, or holler over your back fence, or step outdoors and walk down the sidewalk, if you live in that kind of place, or you can post to the forum, and your response will be there tomorrow in 24 hours.

Ethan Zuckerman:

How does slowing things down help with problems that so many of these communities end up with? So many of these communities end up buried in acrimony, and anger, and people who might've found a way to deescalate a conflict in person, simply screaming at each other on online spaces? The sense that I get is that there's rarely a lot of screaming in the spaces that you're managing.

Michael Wood-Lewis:

True. However, there's been more in the last year and more since 2015 election, 2016 election cycle. So we've had to hire more online community managers and train them more. It's interesting, Ethan, when we started 20 years ago, posting on Front Porch Forum felt like a very poor substitute for having that in-person conversation. Because if you're on the sidewalk and you're having a disagreement with the neighbor about their dog or whatever, you're like, "Look, John, I understand you. He got out. But it's happened three times in a row. What can we do? How can I help?" You know, whatever. you see he's getting worked up, so you back off a little. There's a dance. If you're both well-intended people, you work something out. But in our service, it was like, Oh boy, it's much reduced.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It is probably worth noting that Vermont is not without conflict. I think everybody understands that Burlington is the hometown of Bernie Sanders and that it is a state that is a reliably left-leaning electoral vote. I will say, driving around Bennington to visit a friend the other day, I saw an almost equal number of Black Lives Matter signs and Black Guns Matter signs. I had not seen the Black Guns Matter campaign previously, but it did seem like a bit of an opposition as I was there.

We are living in a world where national issues seem to manifest at the local, no matter what we do. Talk to me a little bit about how technically Front Porch Forum manages to stay hyperlocal. If I decide that I want to assert that I'm from Pownal, Vermont, are you going to check my driver's license? How does that work to make sure that these conversations really just include the neighbors?

Michael Wood-Lewis:

The intent of Front Porch Forum is that each local forum is open to the people who live there or have a significant investment there. They will work there. Maybe they own one rental apartment or something. Or even folks maybe grew up there and their mom still lives there. We're open to people who have an investment in the community.

We rely first on the honor system. We rely second on tech tricks and filters. Third, on our online community managers, who keep an eye out for suspicious... There's probably not a Jimmy Hendrix in Bennington, and who lives at one 23 Main Street or whatever? So they keep an eye out for that. And then finally, the crowd, the neighbors will speak up if they see that someone who doesn't live there is coming in and causing trouble. So is it perfect? No, no, we're not aiming for perfection.

But finally, the biggest thing is Front Porch Form is not... A single forum is not a very attractive target. You have to be pretty determined if you want to go into, I don't know, Berlin Front Porch Forum with 500 members talking about lost cats, and go stir things up. It's like it's interesting for the folks who live there, no offense to my friends in Berlin, but it's just not a very compelling target.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I feel like Front Porch Forum is getting a small wave of attention. You spoke, as I did, at the Civic Signals gathering, led by our friends, Eli Pariser and Talia Stroud, who are studying healthy online communities, looking for models that could be followed. You've certainly had press coverage around the pandemic around phenomenon that have developed on Front Porch Forum, like a barter economy, which is surprisingly robust in some towns.

Michael, what does success look like? Is success where you are now? Is success a world where people pick up some of the lessons of Front Porch Forum and apply them to other spaces? Is it one where your slow inexorable growth eventually covers our whole nation? What are your world plans for domination?

Michael Wood-Lewis:

My dream for Front Porch Forum is to get deeper in Vermont and in the surrounding parts of the surrounding states, to more wholly fulfill our social mission for more people and more communities, and to be a vibrant contributor and player and be healthy. I think back to an era multiple generations ago, where every community had several newspapers that were locally owned and operated, each in competition and rigorous competition together. And boy, they reported the news, but they also did 50 other things around classifieds, and display ads, and the weather, and the sports, and the entertainment stuff, and restaurant reviews.

I'm not saying Front Porch Forum should be a local community newspaper, but take those kinds of institutions and replace them with big tech algorithms. That's like the McDonald's-ization of our food landscape. It's like we need local institutions that enliven, and assist, and help our local communities blossom. That's my goal for Front Porch Forum is more and more.

We've got all sorts of compelling feature ideas and partnerships that we're bubbling around, we're working on for the future. They're not a get rich quick idea. They're not the next Uber or whatever. But in the small town, if you could, yeah, be tied into your local conversation, if you could have an easy way to find that plumber, or easy way to find a local source of something, instead of going and buying it on Amazon. Plug into local non-profit activities, actually consume local news written by local journalists, and support those news organizations. That's the kind of focus that we're working on. We're a big believer in agile development, and every day, it's just like one incremental step in the right direction. This is what we're aiming for.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Really glad that you brought local news into the mix. One of the guests I'm hoping to have on at some point this spring is a Francis Wick, who runs a family owned chain of newspapers out in the Mountain West, it's based out of South Eastern Arizona. He is now trying to build social network properties that he's calling Neighbor around the small, independent weeklies in various small towns in the Mountain West. He's deeply inspired by you.

For people who are listening to this in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for instance, I know we have a listener there, what should they do if they want a Front Porch-like community in their own community? Should they try to build their own? Should they wait for you to get there? Or should they try to make something work on Facebook groups or something else? What do you tell people who are not lucky as I am to share a border with Vermont?

Michael Wood-Lewis:

At various times, we've explored ways of trying to expand. It's just has not been feasible beyond a little bit of adjacent expansion we've done here. I don't have an easy answer in those cases. I'm hoping as we grow FPF organizationally, we've been investing last few years. It's interesting when you start a small business, and you're a sole proprietor basically at the beginning, you do everything soup to nuts, and then you bring some more people in, and more people in, classic startup type stuff.

But we never went out and got a big round of investment and hired a bunch of executives. That was never our model. It was always scraping things together, earning our own revenue, bootstrapping, and hiring frontline people to do the daily work, so we grew the organization this way, so now we're top light, not top heavy. We're looking at making significant investments to strengthen FPF as an organizations so that we have a different answer to that question in the years ahead.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I think it would be amazing to head to the point where FPF is either able to expand as your business and help people out in other communities, or perhaps continue this model of helping people figure out how to do it themselves. It feels to me like some of the key insights you've had that you do need paid moderators, that you need to slow things down, that scale is really important, and that the scale might be keeping things as small as a neighborhood, or at least as small as people who know who each other are. These feel like lessons that we could all learn from.

I think it's remarkable that not only have you done so much work in your own community and your own state over the last 21 years, but you've really found some difficult truths about how online communities work. I'm grateful to you for sharing that. I will also note that I've always been told that the way that you can tell a gregarious Vermonter is that he's the guy who stares at your shoes while you're talking. So I know how hard it is to get someone who lives in Burlington to spend 40 minutes in a conversation, so I'm grateful for you giving so much time to a flatlander.

Michael Wood-Lewis:

Oh, you're welcome, Ethan. It's my pleasure. I wish I could see your shoes.

Ethan Zuckerman:

[Laughs] Thanks, Michael.