Saturday, August 16, 2008

Blogging in the boonies

A few different events and news items have prompted me to think recently about the power and potential of blogging in relation to rural livelihoods. The most recent was this story in the NYT a few days ago, "Woman to Woman, Online." The gist of the story is that women love to read blogs by and about women and their lives (mommy blogs seem especially popular), and the success of some women's blogs has permitted them to quit their "day jobs" and live off the advertising revenue generated by their online popularity.

One of the blogs featured in the story was, so I had a look. This blog is written by a woman named Ree, who describes herself as "a thirty-something ranch wife, mother of four, moderately-agoraphobic middle child who grew up on a golf course in the city." She wound up on a ranch in Oklahoma after meeting her husband, "Marlboro Man," and falling in love. The subhead for her blog is "Plowing Through Life in the Country . . . One Calf Nut at a Time." Photo above right is of Ree and her four youngins'. She describes her blog like this:
I hope you enjoy my website, Here, I write about my decade-long transition from spoiled city girl to domestic country wife. I post photos of cows, horses, and my four weird children, and frequently include shots of cowboys wearing chaps.
The NYTimes says JCPenney advertises with her, and in my two visits to her blog I've also seen "Got Milk" and other dairy association ads, too. Hewlett Packard sponsors her photo pages. I actually have not yet managed to find a mention of exactly where in Oklahoma Ree, her family, and the ranch are, but The Pioneer Woman is certainly playing the rural card.

So does Rechelle, a/k/a The Country Doctor's Wife, whom I found through a link on Pioneer Woman. Turns out, JCPenney is supporting Rechelle's blogging habit, too. And so are some merchants who must be local to Rechelle, like McPeak & Pugh Real Estate in Wamego, Kansas (population 4,246). They must figure that Rechelle is making rural Kansas look so appealing that others will surely want to move there.

All of this is interesting to me for several reasons, including the gender angle (of course!). The dearth of good jobs in rural America-- especially for women -- is well-documented. (See, e.g., the work of Diane McLaughlin at Penn State; Ann Tickamyer at Ohio University; Anastasia Snyder at Ohio State). Bear in mind that rural women are paid about $.55 to the male $1, which creates a considerably worse comparable wage problem than we have nationwide, where women earn a whopping $.77 to the male $1. So, to Ree and Rechelle I say, "you go girls!" (It also has me wondering when the advertisers will discover me . . . )

Rural blogging isn't just a woman thing, of course. A few months ago, I was contacted by Ian Walthew, an Englishman farming in France, who collects and publicizes Farm Blogs from around the World. (He's also written a book on rural gentrification, set in his native Britain, but I'll get to that in another post -- some day). Bottom line: lots of farmers are blogging -- not just their wives. Indeed, some of the farmers are women!

And thinking about farm blogs, in turn, reminded me of some of the panels at this year's Rural Sociological Society Annual Meeting. Talks covered topics such as using the internet to build social capital, which rural residents use email and for what purposes, and the significance of broadband access to rural development. (Search the Annual Meeting Program here). One of my pet interests is the extent to which the World Wide Web is shaping the rural socio-cultural milieu. Like the availability of television a generation earlier, does Internet access to an endless number of content providers have a homogenizing effect on culture? And what difference does it make that the Internet, unlike television, facilitates two-way communication, not just between bloggers and readers, but also by email and in chat rooms?

I wonder if access to the World Wide Web means that -- contrary to what Ree and Rechelle are selling -- rural culture isn't distinctive, or will not remain so. Will this technology infrastructure ultimately render aspects of rural sociology obsolete, or at least relegate them to the history books? Or does the vast number of content providers -- the very eclectic range, including Ree and Rechelle, who are earning a living and a measure of stardom from blogging -- mean greater opportunity for individuality (even eccentricity) for all?


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