ARUN RATH, HOST:
Around Christmas time, Vermont resident Erin Wagg had a problem. Her family got a card from a friend in Italy - someone from an old exchange program - and it was written in Italian.
ERIN WAGG: I don't read Italian at all. And I think it says Cari, Mike and Nancy, and that's about all I can get (laughter).
RATH: So she posted about it on a small, virtual community bulletin board and her neighbors quickly responded. Vermont Public Radio's Angela Evancie has more about the Front Porch Forum.
ANGELA EVANCIE: Here's how it works - every day, you get an email that lists all the postings from other people in your town or city. You have to be a resident and you can't be anonymous. People report lost dogs or break-ins, recommend babysitters. They sell stuff or raise money for this or that cause, or in Erin Wagg's case...
WAGG: Can anyone read Italian handwriting and can you translate this for me?
EVANCIE: And in her town of Richmond, Vt., population 4,000, she got over 20 offers to help.
WAGG: (Reading) Dear Mike and Nancy, we always remember you with affection. I hope you are all...
EVANCIE: The Front Porch Forum was founded by Michael and Valerie Wood-Lewis. They run the company out of their house in Burlington.
VALERIE WOOD-LEWIS: Hi there.
EVANCIE: Hi there.
MICHAEL WOOD-LEWIS: Come on in, Angela.
EVANCIE: It all started when they moved into town and wanted a way to get to know their neighbors, so they built a beta version in 2000.
M. WOOD-LEWIS: It's like its own little neighborhood-level Internet.
EVANCIE: Now, wherever you live in Vermont, you can join a Front Porch Forum, but only the one for your community - no double-dipping. And 15 years later, the company employs a dozen people.
M. WOOD-LEWIS: Well, in much of the state, more than half of the households participate.
EVANCIE: It's free to use, although members might see paid posts by businesses or government officials. And Michael and Valerie say it fosters a different kind of interaction than other online networks.
M. WOOD-LEWIS: Participating on Front Porch Forum is kind of like speaking up at a block party, where it's your neighbors and everyone's wearing a nametag.
V. WOOD-LEWIS: I've been so thrilled at the trust level because people really begin to see that this is similar to an over-the-fence conversation and typically is the start of a conversation that then gets continued in person.
EVANCIE: So different from Craigslist or Yelp and also from Facebook, where your network is totally self-selected, people who probably share your interests and politics.
TOM MACIAS: And there's a term for that in sociology called homophily, which is the love of people like us.
EVANCIE: Tom Macias is a sociologist at the University of Vermont.
MACIAS: And what this is doing is saying connect to people who you may not have, you know, a lot in common with, but hey, you live next door to them. You should get to know them.
EVANCIE: Macias has studied neighborly attractions and found that they do a much better job at opening people's minds and even changing their habits than more cloistered family or friend groups. Michael Wood-Lewis says the Front Porch Forum fosters that dynamic in more ways than one.
M. WOOD-LEWIS: It's tempting to categorize people by the bumper sticker on their car or the campaign sign in their front lawn. And Front Porch Forum gives you an opportunity to actually hear from those people. And it might be about a political issue, but it might just be that someone's selling a table saw, and you go down and you talk to them.
EVANCIE: There's something to be said for proximity. At the end of our interview, Wood-Lewis started talking about Tropical Storm Irene, which totally razed parts of Vermont several years ago. The people who had already connected with their neighbors on Front Porch Forum were much better prepared to mobilize and share supplies. We're connected 50 ways to Sunday, he told me. But if something really bad happens, I want to know my neighbors. For NPR News, I'm Angela Evancie.
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