Angwin: To get us started, how would you describe what Front Porch Forum is accomplishing, and can you talk about your goals?
Wood-Lewis: Our goal is to stimulate people getting more actively involved in real life in their local communities, and we’re using this amazing tool of the internet to help facilitate that. We host an online forum in every community in the state of Vermont, and we have had amazing traction levels. Many towns in Vermont have about 1,000 households, and our average is about 750 participants in our forums.
So at the basic level, what we’re trying to do is have people, instead of using Uber to get a ride to the airport or Yelp for restaurant reviews, go on their local forum and say, “Hey, neighbor, I need a ride to the airport” or whatever it is. Having all those simple exchanges about everyday stuff with clearly identified neighbors leads to an increase in social capital among neighbors.
If we can do this, then when trouble comes, we will be stronger. Studies on disaster response have shown that it’s the communities that have strong social cohesion—where people know each other and are used to working together—that they’re the ones who bounce back quickly. So the goal is to use this online electronic tool to bring people into more regular contact in real life.
Angwin: You have compared Front Porch Forum to a lively local newspaper. Can you explain what you mean?
Wood-Lewis: We’re a big fan of local newspapers, but clearly we are not a newspaper. What I mean is that before the internet, many communities had multiple locally owned and operated newspapers. These newspapers were, in many ways, a hub of each town. In a place like Vermont, you would get the news, but you’d also get gossip, sports, weather, advertisements, and on and on.
Those newspapers were really part of the heart and soul of each community, and in many places, those newspapers are gone or have shrunk considerably. But also what’s replaced local newspapers is Big Tech, and that’s an awful solution. From our perspective, Facebook and much of Big Tech is exploitive and extractive. So we see ourselves as the other side of that effort. Front Porch Forum is trying to support local institutions and the community in a manner similar to how local newspapers did in the past and do at a lesser level today.
Angwin: Was concern over Big Tech what prompted you to start Front Porch Forum?
Wood-Lewis: We started in 2000, so it was before the popularization of Big Tech. It was a prehistoric age—we were using an email list, an Excel spreadsheet, and a clipboard. My wife and I had an itch for more community; we lived in a terrific neighborhood in Burlington, Vt., but we’d only been there a year or so and were new parents, so we needed connection.
I was involved with an early web 1.0 startup and thought, Hey, this crazy tool I’m using at work, maybe we could use it to help solve this problem we’re having. So we started this Listserv in our neighborhood with 500 households, and it had an amazing impact. It was so bizarre. Within a year a glossy home living magazine had written a feature article on our neighborhood as being a super community-oriented place, and people pointed to Front Porch Forum (well, the predecessor to Front Porch Forum) as the reason.
After running it for about six years, I left a job leading an environmental nonprofit, incorporated Front Porch Forum, and launched a 50-neighborhood effort on proof-of-concept software that we hired a young guy at the local university to build. We’ve been growing every day since then.
Angwin: One thing that makes Front Porch Forum unique is that you slow down the pace of content—you don’t have threaded or instantaneous online comments happening. Why did you decide to go that route?
Wood-Lewis: We didn’t slow down the pace; we actually set what seemed like a very normal pace in 2000, and we just haven’t changed it. The world sped up considerably. Big Tech sped everything up considerably, and there are certainly wonderful benefits to some of that. A gardener once described Front Porch Forum as slow drip irrigation, compared to the firehose of so much of the rest of the internet. It’s just a little each day, and it keeps things growing on target.
For us, the point is not to have two or three people go back and forth 26 times fighting. Instead, we see ourselves as a starting point and a catalyst for community conversations. It’s not the end place. We don’t want it to be the end. We actually want people to spend less time online, and that’s blasphemy in Silicon Valley.
Angwin: You have some pretty deep-pocketed competitors with companies like Nextdoor. Have they made traction in Vermont, and do you worry about them?
Wood-Lewis: I used to worry about them in the early days, and then I realized this was wholly unproductive. It’s like comparing some little farmer who grows organic spinach to an industrial-sized tobacco farm. It’s like, O.K., yeah, they both grow green things, but, there is really no comparison.
Angwin: You have invested pretty heavily in content moderators. Can you tell me about their role?
I will say that, since the 2016 election, and even more in the last couple of years, we will get someone going off the deep end at us. But we hold the line; we apply our rules evenly. I know we are doing well when, in the same hour, we’ll get somebody accusing us of being a leftist communist and the next person accuses us of being a right-wing fascist. I think, O.K., we’ve struck the perfect balance. I’m saying that facetiously, but that kind of thing does happen.
Angwin: What type of content is not allowed?
Wood-Lewis: As long as people keep it relatively civil and neighborly and don’t stray into personal attacks, racists rants, or spread disinformation that endangers public health or local democracies, it’s historically been anything goes. I will say, it’s hard to keep the whole community engaged when the conspiracy theories and divisiveness we’re seeing nationally are also playing out on the local level.
Angwin: One final question. During the pandemic there has been a lot of talk about mutual aid and how it is a good model for resilience in the face of hard times. Does mutual aid have a home in Front Porch Forum?
Wood-Lewis: You know it’s interesting. The way we prioritize content is that we actually raise posts that express a need—say someone needs help shoveling their driveway or fixing something. It’s the posts that capture vulnerability and lead to real community building that go to the top. So, in that way I would say Front Porch Forum is itself an integral form of mutual aid. If you’re living in a strong community, that’s what mutual aid is: It’s you need something, you ask for it, and your community supports you.