TAKE BACK CIVIC LIFE FROM THE COMMERCIAL PLATFORMS
Last year, I spent two months quietly lurking on an online discussion board for the town of Middlesex, Vermont, population 1,731. A daily stream of posts written by people using their real names have floated by, at a pace of roughly five to fifteen a day. There were a few dozen posts about candidates for the local school board election, plus a smattering related to other civic functions like the annual town meeting, along with notices about kindergarten registration, upcoming offerings at the local library, historical society notices, transportation planning meetings, health forums and warnings about unsafe road conditions as rural dirt roads thaw out.
A post about the annual all-the-pie-you-can-eat fundraiser at a local church caught my eye, as did an elderly resident asking for help programming their car door opener and someone else needing assistance moving some large items to the town dump. Dozens of posts offered free goods ranging from firewood to beds, unused children's toys to Final Cut Pro editing manuals. Twice, people have reported their dog lost and then found within 24 hours; once, someone reported spotting a lost pair of miniature horses, also returned to their rightful owner within a day.
Of perhaps 250 posts, only two came anywhere close to mentioning national issues—one from someone sharing a news article critical of the power of oil companies, and one being the school board's statement on gun safety. Just once in two months did a post on the Middlesex forum lead to any rancor. That was when someone complained about dogs running loose on a rural road, and the town clerk, who happens to also be the owner of one of said dogs, replied, apologizing and offering a humorous defense of her old basset hound's tendency to act like a puppy at the first sign of spring. When concerned citizen #1 responded back, oddly calling the clerk condescending and self-righteous, a veritable potpourri of her neighbors chimed in defending her good intentions.
All across the state of Vermont, in every town, there is an online forum like this one, run by a local company called Front Porch Forum. Of the roughly 260,000 households in the state, 150,000 belong to a Front Porch Forum connected to where they live. A typical instance, like the Middlesex site where I lurked with the permission of the company's founder, Michael Wood-Lewis, has about 1000 households. People typically spend about 10 minutes a day engaged with the site. It's free to use, but to join you have to verify your home address.
Wood-Lewis has been building Front Porch Forum as an online hub since 2006. Until 2013, it was mainly centered in the neighborhoods of Burlington, the state's largest city, but after Hurricane Irene devastated the state, FPF won some state funding to expand. The storm demonstrated its value in fostering resilient neighborhoods and towns. The site has a full-time staff of close to a dozen, plus lots of part-time community moderators who keep online conversations civil by moderating all posts in advance. FPF is also deliberately designed to make it hard for provocative statements to turn explosive; there is no threading of comments, for example. Ads from public sector agencies, banks, hospitals and the like make up most of FPF's income, along with some local advertising.
In 2017, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded an independent third- party survey of FPF users. Across the board, people reported that using FPF made them more likely to interact with other members of their community, more likely to trust and cooperate with their neighbors, and more likely to participate in civic life. The top reason people gave for visiting the site regularly was, as Wood- Lewis says, "witnessing daily small acts of neighborliness." He adds, "If you experience that, you will have this profound change. Your sense of community and social capital increases."
It's tempting in the current moment to describe Front Porch Forum as the opposite of Facebook, but it might be more useful to see it like an old-fashioned community bank in the age of ethically challenged mega-banks like Citibank and Wells Fargo. The same way we need banks to safely hold our money and help it circulate to create businesses and jobs, we need online digital forums to hold our social identifies and help foster beneficial connections between friends, neighbors and the larger society. The question we face is for whom and on what terms will those forums be built and how should they be maintained. What a platform like Front Porch Forum lets us see is that there are many possible ways to answer that question, and the effects of online public forums do not have to be the ones we are now grappling with thanks to Facebook's focus on growth over every other value.
So I have a simple proposal for Toronto, or any other public government trying to figure out how to strengthen civic life in the digital age, when all the forces of capital seem to be driving us into isolated verticals defined by all the data we willingly and unconsciously share. Take back civic life from the commercial platforms. In the same way that our ancestors built public schools, public libraries, public roads and public parks open to all, creating rules for using those shared services that were fair and respectful of all, let's invest in building local forums like the ones thriving in Vermont. The Internet can indeed be a force for public good, but only if we design it to do so.