Burlington-based Front Porch Forum won two more awards this week. The Rural Telecom Congress recognized FPF with its "RTC People's Choice Award — Most Innovative," and its "RTC Champion Award." The honors came with cash prizes — $500 and $3000, respectively. They're just the latest in a string of accolades, documented here by FPF founder Michael Wood-Lewis.
FPF is a popular neighborhood email newsletter service, available only in Chittenden County, Vermont. It's decidedly low-tech. Subscribers go to the FPF website and sign up to receive free, text-only email newsletters filled with messages from their neighbors and local officials.
How do new subscribers know which neighborhood to sign up for? Easy. They enter their actual, physical home address, and are assigned to an FPF-designated neighborhood. Founder Wood-Lewis draws the neighborhood boundaries. Subscribers only receive emails from their neighborhood forum.
Everyone in the neighborhood can post items to the forum. The only catch is that whenever you post something, everyone in the forum can see your real name and the street where you live. It's a concept that flies in the face of most online communities, which allow anonymity. It's also part of the reason that FPF has been so successful. More than 11,000 households subscribe to FPF — in Chittenden County. Not bad for a local, online initiative.
I'm sure that none of this is news to those of you who live in Chittenden County. FPF is in the local news quite a lot, partly because the forums generate so many story ideas, and partly because Wood-Lewis is a tireless promoter. True, he has a financial stake in making this venture work, but I think he genuinely believes that he's building community, and connecting neighbors in a new and vital way. Clearly, the Rural Telecom Conference thinks so.
I do, too. I should point out that Seven Days is one of the local businesses that advertises on the forums — we trade ads in our newspaper and on our website in return for short text ads on the forums. But I'm also an active forum participant, and I can honestly say that FPF is filling a void, at least in my neighborhood.
FPF isn't perfect — Wood-Lewis has been criticized for the way he draws neighborhood boundaries, and for his efforts at moderating forum discussions (he compiles all the messages manually, and occasionally edits them, or suspends discussions). And because FPF is a no-frills service aimed at the mainstream, it can be frustratingly basic. Messages don't go out in real-time, when you post them, for example; Wood-Lewis waits to send every issue until there are enough posts to justify an update.
But just this past week, my Winooski neighbors have used our forum to lay the groundwork for a much-needed neighborhood watch to combat petty crime. Now that's the kind of change we need.