When I read Lydia O'Connor's Huffington Post article about marches in rural areas and small towns (also mentioned by fellow Legal Ruralism bloggers), I immediately understood why I had reached out via social media and why so many others did too. What's more, through O'Connor's article I reflected on the fact that we are informed about rural attendance of this particular political movement largely because of social media. The entire article was built on inspiring tweets such as Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy's comment: "My tiny hometown of Telluride did a Women's March & over 1,000 people showed up and marched in the snow. 50% of the population. Incredible!"
The internet in general and social media in particular have begun to allow people to feel a part of the national and global conversation (in the US and abroad), regardless of where they are physically located. If one lives in a remote location, she might, not too long ago, have felt entirely isolated, not only in her geography, but in her ideology. She might feel hesitant to speak of her views, or even to seek out views different from those in her immediate community. Now views from all directions come across over the internet-waves. Now she might be more informed that she would have, say, in 1997, or even 2007. Even better, social media can allow people to feel part of a larger community in a demonstrable and undeniable way, regardless of their physical distance (as evidenced by Women's Marchers marching even as remotely as Antarctica). It appears that social media in its function as community-building technology might serve to help people who prefer to live in rurality –social media may allow our rural comrades to remain rural and connected at once.
Rural people have found innovative uses for typically "urban" technology since the days of Bell Telephone or earlier. SMS networking has allowed farmers in Morocco to share best practices, and the Chinese social media platform WeChat helped gather estranged residents of a soon-to-be-demolished coal mining town for one last goodbye (among about a zillion other things WeChat does). The government of a small town in Spain had been using Twitter as its main means of communicating with its citizens for years before it became popular in the US (to my chagrin). My old town of Northampton, MA still updates me about snow emergencies via email and twitter. This is an example of how social media can be a powerful tool used to connect and standardize communication in rurality, where it might, not too long ago, have been impossible to communicate with everyone at once.
However, what if you don't want a standardized message? Many people love their small towns and really enjoy living in a rural location, but lack connection with like-minded individuals. It seems, by the news coverage lately, that social media be used as a way to disagree, just as much as it can be used to homogenize. This might be the perfect way that ideologically isolated people can feel a part of political and social movements. Of course, social media has been a large part of conflict and government-control all over the world, including in Syria, Iran, and more. However, it's also been a great source for activism in wartime truth-telling, in times of protest, and in civil rights.
Speaking out online, perhaps even under a pseudonym, allows people who are connected to their small communities and fear ruffling feathers (such as Hannah Adams reported about for Youth Radio) to feel heard. These platforms can be an outlet despite a political or belief-based disconnect from one's neighbors, and they may allow us to feel outspoken without having to openly oppose those people in our geographic proximity. Indeed, it seems that social media has been a life-raft for many people in the past few months.
To play Devil's Advocate, some feel this double-life can distance us from ourselves, and others find that only truculence and arguments await them when they post their views (we've all been there). As fellow bloggers on this blog have noted, social media can also have very negative effects in small towns (e.g. here and here). Despite their negatives, internet connections and social media are increasingly seen as important to promote human rights, and even seen as a legal right in themselves. Indeed, it felt as thought social media was trending that way last weekend, as it improved the efficacy of grassroots organizing greatly, by getting the word out across the nation.
Susan Cherones (@CousinSugar) loves the 360-person mountain town of Mentone, Alabama where she has made her home for over two decades. However, when 50 people came out to march on January 22, she knew that they weren't necessarily representative of the ideology of the rest of her neighbors and Alabamians. She indicated that connections like social media help her feel ideologically supported, though her rural area (and entire state) might be diametrically opposed to her thinking.
In an article for The Outline, Cherones encouraged "progressives in less-than-progressive regions" with these thoughts, which are perhaps the best way to end this post:
“Hang on to each other, no matter what’s around you,” she said. “We know what’s right. It doesn’t matter if the entire state of Alabama bled red on Election Day. We can see, we have eyes, and we will say that to each other.”