There’s an interesting model of neighborhood-based social networking evolving in Vermont called the Front Porch Forum. I was recently struck by its connection to broad, national concern about the loss of local news coverage. But before I go further, I have to confess some skepticism about the recent sense of malaise around the media. Here’s why:
Just about everywhere you turn, you are bound to read omphaloskeptic writing about the sufferance of media – its consolidation, how it is biased, how there has been a turn from the local, and certainly the absence of an “alternative” voice. At its finest, some have even called Viacom-produced shows like the “Colbert Report” “independent” news sources. This all plays up the general state of disarray and incoherence out there – but not, at least to me, a state of crisis. And perhaps part of the equation lies in some of the unique qualities of a state like Vermont: small, northern, rural, inconsequential, largely and often overlooked. Perhaps this has allowed something other than the dominant narratives to play out among our bonny green hills.
One of those is the healthy ecology of small town newspapers. Right here in the northern piedmont we have more than a dozen local papers serving a disbursed population of roughly 70,000. Which are all complemented by the circulation of the larger area papers – the Times Argus, Burlington Free Press as well as out of state ones, including the Boston Globe and the New York Times.
So why the health of so many local papers?
Part of it has to do with the interest of local stories – believe it or not, papers keep us in touch with each other – and the other with utility – what we can find of value tucked into those pages, everything from fuel to festivals, trail guides to trash hauling.
And this is exactly why new home-based start-ups like the Front Porch Forum founded by Michael Wood-Lewis and his family work in a place like Vermont: not only is the basic technology in place, but so are some of the “old school” habits of community. People consider in natural to ask for help and to provide it. To make use of others’ second hand goods and to share theirs. To gather informally for dinners, dances and games. To care for one another. Not that these impulses don’t exist elsewhere: its what makes life worth living. But perhaps in a world of disappearing sidewalks, isolated neighborhoods, disbursed shopping “centers,” and busy schedules its just a little harder to make it happen.
Perhaps tools like the Front Porch Forum can also help to re-connect the fabric of community life as well.
Different from anonymous boards like Craigslist and broader than specialized lists like FreeCycle, the Front Porch Forum is a neighborhood based, email-driven social utility that helps people in geographic neighborhoods to connect with one another and share resources – whether it is time and attention, a hot meal, or a specific skill.
Emerging online spaces like the Front Porch Forum offer their members many common utilities – blogging, calendars, announcement lists, profile pages etc – but it is the connection to people with whom one feels both a natural and a real bond, a certain “bound upness” or shared fate that makes them compelling. So when someone several houses away posts an alert about a missing cat, there’s a relevance. If another can’t make a delivery of a hot meal to a house-bound parent a few doors down, its easy for someone else to fill to void. Need reliable childcare for an afternoon? It could be four houses down – with local references.
And its not just neighbors who find value in this kind of online setting for exchange. Word is, local politicians like to hang out there to hear local issues play out in resident exchanges. Newspaper reporters like to get access to the local angle when issues are discussed. While I haven’t heard of any big scoops, I am certain that initiatives like the Oregonian’s recent work on race and other dialogue-oriented forms of journalism would find welcome participants and readers.
Front Porch Forum is up for a Case Foundation Make It Your Own award – I hope you’ll check it out and consider throwing in a vote!