front porch flimflam
Flimflam /ˈflɪm.flæm/: n. Talk that intends to deceive ... v. To swindle or dupe


Let's begin at the end: On Nov. 2, 2022, Front Porch Forum terminated my household from its platform. FPF, which is donor supported and funded, unfoundedly and without detailed explanation prohibited me, and my wife by association, from using our voice in our community. And also prohibited us from the other 90% of what we – and all of you – use FPF for: free piles, yard sales, getting things we need, unloading things we don't, learning about boil water notices, crime reports, City meetings, concerns in our community, etc.

If it can happen to us, it can happen to you.

Most of you know the narrative of the "little Vermont company making social networks 'good' instead of evil." But is it true? Or is it a great Green Mountain state deception? I've made the argument before that just because an objectively horrible thing exists (in this case, social media giants like Twitter and Facebook) does not make any alternative to that horrible thing implicitly good (in this case, Front Porch Forum). If both are bad, there is no good. FPF could be good. It claims to be good. We all want it to be good. But is it?

FPF calls itself "essential civic infrastructure in Vermont." FPF is lauded far and wide by some big names in media and tech: Eli Pariser, Julia Angwin, Ethan Zuckerman, Michelle Goldberg, Micah Sifry, Anne Applebaum, Andrew Liptak, and more. Front Porch Forum co-founder and CEO, Michael Wood-Lewis, recently gave an interview in which he said FPF sees "ourselves as a starting point and a catalyst for community conversations." In that same interview, Wood-Lewis added: "As long as people keep it relatively civil and neighborly and don’t stray into personal attacks, racists rants, or spread disinformation that endangers public health or local democracies, it’s historically been anything goes."

I've never done any of those things.

Front Porch Forum continually and effectively shapes the narrative of itself in such a way that you can find countless glowing news stories which describe it as being, more or less, like this one story described it: "[FPF] is a very heavily moderated local email list that you can post to once a day. If you post something and it’s against the rules and norms it gets sent back to you with a nice little note saying like 'hey can you try saying this a different way?' The once-a-dayness is really important because you have to have a lot of stamina and energy to sustain an argument across 14 days of back-and-forth."

The day after they terminated my account, Front Porch Forum reprinted a member's post on its public blog, saying: "We love her perspective on this." Among other things, the member's post said:

"Knowing that we have such wildly divergent views on things is important … If I don’t jibe with a particular person in the community or with certain views and it bothers me to see some posts? The answer isn’t to tell people to be quiet. The answer is for me to decide I don’t want to listen. But I do listen and I know from personal experience that my world is richer as a result. … I hope everyone will feel free to keep posting and keep all of these conversations going. I agree there’s no room here for hateful political or personal attacks, but just because a view is expressed that one doesn’t agree with doesn’t make it hateful."

On Front Porch Forum's own "Keeping it Civil" page, it states that users should "feel free to use it to introduce and catalyze harder conversations. But when doing so, please have a thick skin and treat your neighbors with respect."

Even though it is NOT a nonprofit, Front Porch Forum markets itself to appear like a nonprofit, and generates its revenue via donations from individual citizens (even using its donors to fundraise on FPF's behalf in individual neighborhood forums), as well as from paid advertising by "mostly Vermont small businesses, nonprofits, government agencies and political campaigns." It has also received foundation grants, and taxpayer money from the federal government to local governments in Vermont. In its most recent fundraising drive, thousands of FPF members gave a total of more than $200,000to a for-profit business. Money that FPF says is only enough for the "months ahead."

What kinds of things did I write about on Front Porch Forum? I spoke up FOR the planet and all living animals, plants, and other beings; I spoke up AGAINST White supremacy, settler colonialism, and the dominant culture; I spoke up FOR public health and doing what each of us can do to keep everyone – everyone – safe and healthy during an ongoing global pandemic. I wrote about how the need for solutions to a "child care" crisis ignores the fact that a system that has created a need for "child care" is THE crisis. The common thread? Challenging the choices that humans have made, and the stories that have been told, and asking for different choices to be made and for the full story to be told.

And then Front Porch Forum said I wasn't allowed to raise those topics, or any others, in my community any longer.

On Oct. 26, 2022, I joined a conversation started by another member of our community, a person who is a Front Porch Forum donor and a frequent FPF poster about sustainability and the climate crisis. The topic was the new trail in Hubbard Park. I clearly stated my objection to the trail for reasons solely related to climate change, ecology, and the environment both locally and globally. Later that day, in Montpelier issue 6525, five people (including the FPF donor and frequent poster who began the thread) responded in reference to my post, all disagreeing while dismissing my concerns, which is absolutely fine we're in a conversation here. But many of them disparaged me and my opinions, as well as asserted things about me that were not only untrue and based on things I did not say, but were in opposition to what I specifically called attention to at the outset of my post so that no one would do what ended up happening anyway. Namely, accusing me of being against disability rights, or being ableist. One of those same people later privately sent me a borderline threat. (All of the above is supposedly in violation of FPF's Terms of Use, but was still published and/or later ignored by FPF when they were informed).

Late on Oct. 26, I tried to respond, at which point there was a mysterious "monthly posting limit" on my account that is not anywhere in Front Porch Forum's Terms of Use or policies. I would later learn, and only because I asked first after hearing nothing from FPF, that this mystery limit is not grounded in a number, or anything concrete, and is member-profile-specific, and apparently arbitrarily applied.

On Nov. 1 – the date Front Porch Forum told me I'd be allowed back in – I tried to respond to the existing thread about the Hubbard Park trail. I learned then that the character limit on my posts was reduced by half from what it had been. Still, I tried to address all five people in four posts (it was meant to be two before the new character limit). FPF later deleted those posts without any communication or explanation. The next day, I attempted to post just the first part, thinking I'd have to post the full response over four days. FPF later deleted that post without any communication or explanation, and my account was deactivated shortly thereafter – again, without any communication or explanation at the time my account was terminated, and lasting for nearly 24 hours until FPF responded (thinly) to my request for an explanation. Again, me reaching out to them first.

To take things even further, FPF also terminated my wife's account. In two very brief posts, she tried to inform our community that I wasn't allowed to respond, and asked if anyone had experienced the "monthly posting limit" before. She quoted FPF verbatim about this limit. And she privately asked FPF – briefly and politely, and only after FPF deleted both posts without any communication or explanation – why it didn't publish either. That was the extent of her involvement.

All Front Porch Forum has communicated about the termination of our accounts is to reprint two subsections of its Terms of Use, and cite "repeated violations" as the reason for termination. If this were true (which it's not), how could every one of my posts have been published by FPF? As you've read, FPF doesn't publish posts that don't pass muster with its moderators and with its Terms of Use. I can't publish them on my own. Furthermore, how could I repeatedly violate the Terms of Use, and not once be contacted by FPF about any single individual violation, let alone an entire group of them, before FPF decides to simply end my participation for "repeated violations" that I had no idea I was committing? Which, again, I was not.

Which is more likely? That I had repeatedly violated the Terms of Use without FPF noticing or caring until Oct. 26, or there is a different reason entirely for terminating my account, and FPF is hiding behind its Terms of Use as a rationale?

The subjects I write about are not comfortable for many people. That's kind of the point. My posts are respectful, thoughtful, considered, and never belligerent or directly attacking any individual. If there is a common thread, it's that what people are told to believe is a narrative, and that narrative is intentional and isn't always – in fact, it's rarely – the reality. This situation I'm now in with Front Porch Forum has become a model example of that view.

What's interesting is that when I post about what took place in Hubbard Park in order to create the trail, and its effects, no one refutes any of what I've said. In fact, I get thanked by many people for saying it. When I post about CDC information that is a better measure of Covid in our communities than the information that the state government, local media, or local businesses would like you to use, no one refutes any of what I've said. In fact, I get thanked by many people for saying it. When I point out that local organizations are fundraising by celebrating eugenicists and White supremacists who have participated in the genocide of Indigenous Peoples in this part of the world, or that every year this country still celebrates an Italian man who launched that genocide, no one refutes any of what I've said. In fact, I get thanked by many people for saying it.

But I guess there are people at Front Porch Forum, like Michael Wood-Lewis – and perhaps elsewhere who FPF values more than me and my wife – who don't think I should be allowed to express what I've been expressing, especially if it's grounded in uncomfortable truths. I shouldn't be allowed to have those conversations with my fellow community members on a public forum intended to (and marketed to) provide exactly that opportunity.

Front Porch Forum has decided that I should not be a part of my community. Front Porch Forum has decided that my wife, by association, should not be a part of her community. As if she were not her own person, separate from her husband. Front Porch Forum is OK allowing people (including its donors) to disparage me and twist and turn my words into something I didn't say (and which I made clear at the outset that I was not saying) to have the last word, while I get muffled and sent away permanently.

All you have to do is look at its "testimonials" web page, or read the FPF annual report and its four pages of testimonials (out of an eight-page report) to know that FPF members, likely the vast majority of them, do not realize that FPF is not a public service providing a free and open place for community members to engage, and to do so as befits their own community. Most people believe what FPF says, that there is no "one way" for a FPF community forum to be, or look like, or act like, because it's up to each community. Except that there is apparently one way, and that's the way that only a certain few people who work for FPF decide for those communities which in nearly every case is not even their community at all.

Does that sound like the kind of operation represented by this FAQ (italics added)?

Is FPF moderated?

Yes, FPF's professional online community managers moderate all FPF Neighborhood Forums. But it’s really the neighbors who set the tone and keep the conversation flowing.

Or this one?

I could go on and on using only what FPF itself publishes in order to sell people on what it wants you to believe FPF is. There are many examples on the site.

The public and private FPFs are not the same place, and that's what's deceiving people. Not just donors, obviously, but anyone who thinks that FPF is the place to engage with their community in a variety of ways. They believe those things because FPF says that's what it's for. But the reality is that FPF is deciding how communities engage, what members of that community can engage, and about what those people can discuss as a community. I'm sorry, but that's just not right, no matter how legal it might be.

Using its status under Vermont law (which confuses people), its own self-styling as "essential civic infrastructure in Vermont," its various donation campaigns, its media coverage and marketing copy, and its FAQs, FPF presents itself as being something it decidedly isn't.

To use a newspaper parallel, Seven Days is a for-profit business and asks people for donations because it provides a free news publication. Their ask is simple: If you like this publication and want to help support us, then do so. No one questions what Seven Days is. People might question the coverage itself, but that's different than questioning whether Seven Days is a newspaper. And a newspaper can't prevent me from reading its publication.

That is a vastly different situation than what happens when FPF is asking people for money based on a narrative about what it exists to provide citizens and how essential it is. Governments use FPF, sometimes with taxpayer money, to keep the public informed, and they point community members to FPF to stay up to date. Yet FPF gets to cut community members off from that information.

Just look at the word "infrastructure," which is defined as "the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise."

When people hear or see the phrase FPF uses to describe itself, as "essential civic infrastructure in Vermont," surely most people see that and believe a host of things about FPF that are not true. That happens every day, and will continue to happen unless there's a reason for it to stop.

Another broad theme to what I've been writing on Forum Porch Forum, and elsewhere, is that actions speak louder than words. People can say all the right things in order to appear to be one thing, but if they're not doing those things, and in fact doing the opposite, then they're hypocrites and in this case, oppressors and swindlers.

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of what Front Porch Forum is like behind the curtain, and you will consider what that knowledge means to you, and to our community.