Note: This research project was featured in an article in The New Republic “Escape from Facebookistan” in May 2018.
Front Porch Forum’s (FPF) mission is to help more than 130,000 neighbors across Vermont’s 260,000 households connect and build community in their neighborhoods. Using software they co-created with their technology partner, Toronto-based TWG, FPF hosts free online neighborhood forums that provide members with opportunities to share information, goods and services; promote local businesses and contractors; and engage in discussion on community issues. Through the e-newsletters, neighbors talk about neighborly things: missing pets, households items to borrow or lend, crime, and wild-life sightings. They also talk about opportunities to get involved in their community by volunteering or by engaging in town hall, school board or other community discussions. And they often go offline to meet each other face to face, or attend events.
FPF’s technology has several distinct features:
- FPF forums are not threaded discussions. This means there is no direct back and forth between neighbors in real-time. Instead, neighbors who see an issue raised in one e-newsletter can either email the author off-list, or submit a posting for the next e-newsletter, which builds lag time into discussions.
- FPF has a team of Vermont-based, online community managers who review all postings.
- Postings are ordered first by FPF’s back-end technology, and then reviewed or re-ordered by online community managers.
FPF’s overarching mission to provide a public service to communities drove them to ask: What impact are FPF postings and discussions having over time? Could technology like FPF help to build social capital in communities? With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), FPF partnered with Network Impact to explore these questions.
Social capital is commonly defined as social connections and the norms of trustworthiness and reciprocity that arise from them. Social capital is considered a predictor of health and well-being, economic development and responsive government (Putnam, 1993; La Porta et al. (1997); Knack and Keefer (1997)). In their research, RWJF highlights the importance of socially connected communities, noting that people who feel attached to their place are “likely to be healthier than those who feel isolated or marginalized…and more inclined to take action to improve [their] own health and the health of others.”
Efforts to understand social capital and social networks in place-based settings like neighborhoods often focus on the progression from weak to strong ties in a network over time, as strong ties typically indicate greater trust and connection. Recent research suggests that weak ties formed by short, transactional interactions with other people impact well-being (Sandstrom and Dunn, 2014). Part of FPF’s overarching hypothesis about the impact of their technology is that if neighbors have an easy, friendly, no-cost way to communicate daily, then their perception of their neighborhood and their role in it will become richer. They will pay closer attention to local goings on and begin to get more involved. Then, when trouble or opportunity arises, this collection of neighborly, conversing, helpful neighbors will respond, whether it’s digging out elderly neighbors after a snowstorm or going after one-time funding to build a community youth center. In this light, small acts of neighborliness take on new meaning. In our research, we hypothesized that participating in or witnessing these small acts creates weak ties between neighbors that are powerful enough to encourage place attachment, a key correlate of social capital.
We worked with FPF to create a Theory of Action to describe how the exposure to e-newsletters might affect FPF members over time. Below is a simplified version. (To view the full, detailed Theory of Action click here ).
To test elements of the Theory of Action, we designed an online member survey that was sent to all FPF members and completed by over 13,000 members. We then integrated member usage data from FPF’s back-end database, which allowed us to match survey responses with members’ online behavior and engagement data (for example, how many times a member has ever posted, which forum s/he is a member of, whether sh/e is a public official). This allowed us to integrate and analyze both self-reported impact data from the survey and actual usage data on behavior patterns.
Results of our analysis confirmed that FPF is helping to build social capital and that witnessing everyday acts of neighborliness is a powerful driver of both online and offline community engagement.
Self-report data strongly suggest that members are driven to be more engaged with FPF by witnessing other members of their community participate in small acts of neighborliness. Notably, this finding also holds for members who gave lower scores when asked to rate their neighborhood and who were less optimistic about their neighborhood’s future, both common correlates of low levels of social capital.
- FPF is having an impact on members regardless of how often, or even if, they post. A positive impact is experienced by all members, even those who participate less and have lower online engagement.
- Across all types of forum communities, discussions of local issues were a top-value generator.
- FPF is likely having more of an impact on offline actions in communities than is currently captured. When asked how often they take action offline in their community as a result of an FPF post, 18% of respondents with low online engagement reported taking offline action as a result of FPF once a month or more (compared to 28% for those who are highly engaged online).
- Top factors for remaining a member in FPF were staying connected to members of the community and staying informed about what is going on locally.
This research provides a jumping off point for digging deeper into how technology can enhance opportunities to build social capital in place. Lessons from this research that could be applied and tested in connection with other efforts to use technology to build community in place include:
- Monitor impact: The field of civic tech has advanced considerably in recent years, and many innovators are moving past standard usage metrics to include outcomes-based research and tracking in their platform and tech monitoring. By conducting research that tracks how and why impact is generated for users and their communities, tech creators are able to maximize that impact by increasing platform engagement and social capital building over time. You can find our publications and resources for evaluating civic tech initiatives here.
- Support frequent small acts of neighborliness – To support place attachment and increased social capital in communities, offer both online and offline opportunities to participate in and witness small acts of connection and kindness.
- Create offline ambassadors – Recruit users who are active online who also report taking actions offline to be ambassadors for both the technology and for community building and engagement. By connecting those engaged members with local initiatives you can further explore ways to support active online and offline engagement. And, local offline ambassadors can reinforce the platform’s impact in the community.
- Use information hierarchy to show users that you are responsive to what they value – People in different communities may value different kinds of information. For example, FPF members who rated their community higher found postings on local crime to be the most valuable, while those who rated their community lower found information on local events to be the most valuable. Differences may reflect other variables as well, such as needs and preferences in rural vs. urban areas. Collect research data that describe the highest value generators for different places, as well as what drives users to engage more, and use that data to highlight information that drives engagement and creates the most value (e.g. putting information about a particular topic at the beginning of the newsletter).
- Hyperlocal is not dead: Many smaller communities lack good local news and information sources. The fact that FPF is by, for and about Vermonters was second highest ranked driver of platform engagement. FPF built a service and a company intent on supporting authentic community interactions and opportunities to share information. In a limited analysis of open-ended responses about why they remain a member of FPF, members testified that FPF was the best source of community information they could get. Especially in rural and small communities, there is an information gap that technology is well-positioned to bridge to keep people informed, connected and aware of opportunities.
- Putnam, Robert with Robert Leonardi and Raffaella Y. Nanetti (1993). Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- La Porta, Rafael; Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes, Andrei Shleifer and Robert W. Vishny (1997). “Trust in Large Organizations.” American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, 87, 333-38.
- Knack, Stephen and Keefer, Philip (1997). “Does Social Capital Have an Economic Payoff? A Cross-Country Investigation.” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 112(4), 1251-88.
- Sandstrom, G. and Dunn, E. (2014). Social Interactions and Well-Being: The Surprising Power of Weak Ties, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.