From Bangkok to Burlington – The Social Internet of Public Interest


This blog post is one of a series devoted to the Internet of public interest – the parts of the Internet that do not make Facebook or Google headlines, but quietly provide public goods and useful services without requiring the scale or business practices of the tech giants. Read our previous installments.

In the last installment, we discussed the platforms that link messaging apps together. These make it easier for users to chat with more people, no matter where they are or what app they are using, allowing someone who uses the latest chat tool, like Slack, to talk to someone. one on a decades-old platform like IRC. But localized services are also important for the Internet of public interest. While forums like Nextdoor have gained attention (and users) for offering neighborhood communication regardless of your zip code, other services that predate these – and bypass many of their controversies – do exist. .

Is the best of the Internet doomed to exist only in a few narrow strongholds?

This post will focus on two very different social networks:

The first is Front Porch Forum, a local Vermont platform that is “a hyperlocal social micro-network,” tied to local services and with a huge percentage of local user usage. A caveat that many find more liberating than restrictive: comments, responses and posts do not reach their neighbors until the next day, in a newsletter-style digest.

The other is Pantip, which is one of the top ten websites in Thailand. It’s a giant compared to Front Porch Forum, but its ability to persist and remain independent makes it an interesting topic.

Grow slowly

Co-founders Michael and Valerie Wood-Lewis, of Burlington, Vermont, started Front Porch Forum in the early 2000s by distributing flyers in their neighborhood. The objective was not to create a business or to create a startup, it was to meet their neighbors. Users of other neighborhood sites will be familiar with the benefits of a local online community.

As the site grew, others outside of Burlington asked to join. But Wood-Lewis refused them, choosing to focus the community on his area only. At first, he created a how-to guide for those who wanted to create their own local area network, but eventually the site allowed anyone in Vermont to register (it is now expanding to parts of New York and of Massachusetts).

But even as it grew, the focus was on the public good, not profit. Instead of increasing the number of posts that users can post to generate more content (and space for ads), the site has continued to function effectively as an upgrade from its old mailing list format. . And rather than collecting data about users beyond their location (which is necessary to register on the site and communicate with neighbors), or spray them with advertising, Wood-Lewis uses the hyperlocal of Front Porch Forum geography to its advantage:

“We’ve been pretty much diametrically opposed to the business model of surveillance from the start. Our basic business model is therefore to sell advertisements, advertising space to local businesses and non-profit organizations. Ads are distributed by geographic area and date, and that’s it. There’s no “Yeah, let’s check people’s browser history, or dig into people’s lives.” We don’t do that.

These simple ads make it easy for local businesses and others to provide services to their community without hiring a graphic designer or having to learn anything complicated about online advertising, such as how to create contextual ads that are based on perceived interests. users (and data).

Unlike the well-known problems of racism and guarding on the Nextdoor or Ring’s Neighbors app, Wood-Lewis attributes the site’s overall positivity to a variety of factors which are all built into the public interest mindset: slow growth, community focus, and moderation . But not necessarily this Moderator Type: Although all posts are reviewed by moderators and there are filtering tools, posts are usually published as a newsletter, once a day, by default. If you want to yell at your neighbor, you have the option of posting it directly through the site, but you’d probably be better off knocking on their door. Users say that while most of the Internet “is like an information and communication fire hose, Front Porch Forum is like slow drip irrigation.”

As Front Porch Forum has grown, it has done so on its own income and at its own pace. While many of the more popular social networks have to scale to be successful for investors, which relies on speed and breaking things up, Front Porch Forum could best be described as a site to slowly move forward and fix things.

Stay afloat despite the challenges of freedom of expression

On the other side of the world, the Pantip forum, a sort of Thai reddit, has become one of the most popular sites in the country since its creation in 1997. The growth (and survival) of Pantip is all the more important that Thailand has some of the toughest legal frameworks in the world for online speech. Intermediaries are strictly responsible for the speech of their users, which is particularly troubling, since the offense of criticizing members of the royal family (“lese majesté”) can result in imprisonment for both the poster and the poster. site administrator.

As a result, the site strict rules May seem overbearing to Western users – participating in the positive vote and points system requires validating your identity with government ID, for example – but the site remains popular after more than twenty years of operation with no outside investment. Pantip has sailed in dangerous waters for a very long time, and has even had parts of the site shut down by the government, but it is moving forward, offering Thai users a place to chat online, while many other sites have been scuttled. For example, many newspapers have closed commentary sections for fear of being held accountable. Although this legal regime endangers the owner of Pantip, especially during regime changes—he still does not sell large companies: “Maybe I’m too conservative. I don’t believe that the internet [business] needs a lot of money to operate. Because we can do business on the Internet with a very small [investment]. ”

Models for the future?

Neither Front Porch Forum nor Pantip are making Facebook or Twitter headlines, but not because they failed. On the contrary, their relatively specific rules and localized audiences make them poor models for moving towards global domination. To some extent, they benefit from not doing a lot of publicity. In the case of Front Porch Forum, mass appeal is irrelevant – site members spread by word of mouth in a local context, and ad revenue grows with it. For Pantip, it’s best to keep a low profile, even if hundreds of thousands of users are in the dark. And the two sites are proof that social media doesn’t need to be run by venture-backed, global-scale services, and that we don’t need a Facebook to give. forums for people in local areas or developing countries to connect and organize. .

But is part of their success due to the Front Porch Forum and Pantip’s lack of interest in disrupting the tech giants of the world? If the public interest Internet is an alternative to Facebook and Google, is it really a viable future for a few lucky groups? Is the best of the internet doomed to exist only in a few narrow strongholds? Or can we increase the human scale: make sure everyone has their own Front Porch, or Pantip, at their fingertips, instead of having to stake everything in the icy, globalized space of tech giants?

An area of ​​the Net that has accompanied it from the start and has managed to be both a place of collaboration for friends and a place that has had a wider impact on the world, is the subject of the next article in this series. . We’ll discuss the world of fan content, including the award-winning Hugo fanfiction archives on Archive of Our Own, and how the Public Service Internet allows people to comment on and add to the stories they love, in places that serve them better than our current giants.

This is the sixth article in our public service Internet blogging series. Read more in the series:

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