Front Porch: A Forum for Fighting?

Front Porch Forum, an online message board for Vermonters created by Michael and Valerie Wood-Lewis almost ten years ago, has been a useful tool for community members to contact each other about events, needed help, jobs, and most recently, debates.  The platform is moderated and all posts must abide by the terms of use, but the online platform has been also become a place for users to post comments on touchy subjects and cause disagreements that are hard to control.

Recently, there have been posts and comments relating to student discipline and learning at Berlin Elementary School; that students are being forced to learn in a certain way, and if they don’t comply, they’re sent to “solitary confinement.” Some parents are not happy, and they are using Front Porch Forum as a way to express their anger.

image02One parent’s comments capture the tone of the discussion.

“If your children are coming home in a funk here are some points to consider. Berlin Elementary fully embraces Common Core curriculum which tells your child what to learn not how to inquire or explore. Math is designed to dumb your child down by adding numerous steps to simple math problems with the frustrating (Show me your work) question.”

When asked about her reaction to the Berlin Elementary posts, U-32 senior Tillie Quattrone said, “I think that, obviously, Front Porch Forum should be used respectfully, but such a public forum with so few censorship restrictions is bound to see uneducated or biased behavior like that. I’m not trying to excuse it, but it doesn’t surprise me.”

One potential problem with platforms such as Front Porch Forum is that users have a way to voice their opinion without saying it face to face, which could result in posting things that are particularly disagreeable.

Jonathan Goddard, a Front Porch Forum user, said “It’s a great place for people that are civically-minded who wish to share opinions and be engaged with their neighbors. However, that assumes that people will engage in that discourse in a civilized, thoughtful, and respectful way, and that doesn’t always happen. When people are uncivilized, the purpose of the site breaks down, and people are more interested in being right or hurting someone else’s feelings instead of discussing the issues.”

image03The anonymity of the site, and the fact that it is generally easier to voice opinions over a computer than face to face, could be reasons why some parents are posting angry comments about their child’s school.

Quattrone, however, disagrees. When asked whether she thought parents would say those things in person, she said, “Yeah, I think so. Parents can be really protective and opinionated about their kids and not afraid to insult institutions they think are doing them injustice.”

Front Porch Forum is meant to resemble a town meeting, where all community members have the right to talk about issues that are important to them, but a key part of all town meetings is a facilitator to keep things under control. Although there are moderators on Front Porch Forum, it seems some users are typing things that they wouldn’t otherwise say.

Said Wood-Lewis, “While it’s not rocket science, it’s also not terribly obvious how to do this well. Most of the days we do a pretty good job, but we still take our lumps and we’re still learning”.