BURLINGTON, VERMONT — Vermont-based social networking site Front Porch Forum has earned an intense regional following, partly thanks to its success as a venue for hyperlocal citizen journalism. FPF users within 120 small, geographically specific networks write daily and weekly newsletters covering the most quotidian neighborhood news, from church talent shows to snow removal reports. (Since FPF newsletters aren’t archived online, we can’t provide links, but “Snow Removing Good Samaritan Caught in the Act” is a representative headline.)
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A network of message boards and daily newsletters covering the remote and sparsely populated region of northern Vermont, Front Porch Forum offers journalism and social networking at its most local. For instance, when a family in Bristol, Vermont is about to run out of firewood on a sub-freezing winter night, Front Porch Forum’s message boards are there, providing a channel of communication between neighbors who might otherwise remain totally unaware of each other’s existence. The site attempts to serve as an online surrogate for once-common venues for communal discussion—from local news sources to local watering holes.
“Things like bowling leagues and corner markets don’t exist the way they used to,” says FPF founder Michael Wood-Lewis, “but there’s a strong necessity for people near each other to know each other and be in communication.”
Wood-Lewis launched FPF with his wife in 2006. Since then, 24,000 households—a third of the population in areas where FPF is offered—have signed up for the service. The site requires users to provide a home address somewhere within FPF’s service area; as soon as a household signs up, it has access to the message boards and newsletters that serve its locality. Every single member of the Burlington City Council has joined, as well as all but a single member of the Burlington school board. Though there is no charge for most users, several high-ranking municipal officials are among those who pay for special premium accounts that allow them to access each of the site’s 130 local networks.
When FPF started in 2006, Wood-Lewis was more interested in creating a public service than a lucrative business. Even so, he notes that the FPF “isn’t a charity.” The site has five permanent employees, two of whom help recruit advertisers. Because the site’s ads don’t appear until a user is logged in, local advertisers have the ability reach very specific target audiences. Advertising is FPF’s primary revenue stream, followed by premium subscription fees.
Although he hasn’t moved definitively yet, Wood-Lewis believes that FPF’s future lies beyond his home state. He says that over 1,500 people from throughout the United States have requested FPF in their area, and a major near-term goal is to simplify the site’s platform in order to make FPF more attractive to potential users. If FPF can tap into a larger desire for more geographically-specific interaction and information exchange, it could grow into a kind of regionally-based Craiglist-style network with a journalistic component. The site is based on the kind of intra-communal dialogue that brings to mind Arthur Miller’s notion that “A good newspaper…is a nation talking to itself”—even if the “nations” are, in this case, neighborhood-sized.
Front Porch Forum Data
Name: Front Porch Forum
Principal Staff: Michael Wood-Lewis, founder and CEO.
CMS: Custom CMS.