Saturday, January 28, 2017

Social media as a support-network in rurality?

As I walked into the street in Oakland for the Women's March the day after the Inauguration of President Donald Trump, I did a thing that I rarely do. I looked around at the thrilling, lively, and heartening action around me, and then, I got out my phone and immediately opened all my social media feeds. This was an embarrassing moment for me, because I fight against 'falling into the device' so-to-speak, particularly when real-life is quite active. However, I had a few excuses. First, I had joined the March with one friend, and we'd been planning to meet up with several other women-marchers, but in the crowd of between 60,000 and 100,000 people, meeting up with our friends was impossible. Secondly, I knew I had dear friends marching in New YorkBoston, Philly, DC, and all across the globe. I felt distant from my friends in the Oakland crowd, and from those in solidarity in other cities, and I desperately wanted to connect. Social media allowed me to feel that I was marching with all of them; through their photos and sentiments, I felt that they were right beside me.

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.”


K. Harrington said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post and I agree that social media has probably played a huge role in allowing people in rural places to feel like they can voice their opinions, even if they may be considered unpopular within their local community. At the UC Davis Law Review Symposium today, a speaker reminded us of a famous quote by anthropologist Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has." Although the quote was directed at a different topic at the Symposium, I think it is equally relevant here. I wonder if the media's attention to the number of rural participants in the Women's March will encourage rural communities to continue speaking out and organizing in the coming months?

RGL said...

The effect of technology on rural spaces goes so far beyond allowing "people to feel a part of the national and global conversation." I completely understand the motivation for writing on this precise topic, based on your experience at the Oakland March, although, your experience was not the trend you discuss. (Placed in an urban space, you sought connection with other urban spaces; it is apparent that you were acutely self-aware.) It would have been interesting to incorporate the effect of increased access to information and other resources such as news media, the web-based healthcare brought up in seminar, technology-based law-enforcement, or other substantial influences that technology has had on rural people and spaces.

Wynter K Miller said...

I appreciated especially the time you devoted in this post to "playing Devil's advocate," because though the positive effects of technological advancement are many, I think rural populations are vulnerable also to technology's negative effects. Even as small-town communities are empowered by projection of their digital voice, the loss of privacy attached to "plugging in" can be acute. I am reminded, for example, of First Amendment cases like Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart. In that 1976 case, local police found the a local family murdered in their home in small-town Nebraska (pop. 850). The police released a description of the suspect, who was quickly arrested and arraigned. The crime immediately attracted widespread national news coverage; the attorneys involved requested a restrictive order, citing concerns that prejudicial news coverage would make it difficult, if not impossible, to impanel an impartial jury in such a small community. Setting aside the First Amendment issues this case is most often cited for, I am struck by the idea that constitutionally required procedural mechanisms, like the right to a fair trial and impartial jury, raise special difficulties in small towns—when technology is added to the mix, those difficulties can become exacerbated.

ofilbrandt said...

This post suggests that all urban people are eager to connect to urban people and/or their rural counterparts elsewhere. It frames the situation as if all rural people welcome the interconnectedness and that this is true even if they have opposing viewpoints. My question is, to what extent is this true? Scholars that focus on rural people struggle to define what is an is not rural. In such struggles, they maintain that communities are unique despite these general markers of what is or may be "rural." It is unlikely that every rural community has a goal of connecting to others. Further, within individualized rural communities, there may be some members against connectivity and other actively pursuing it.

Above, Wynter K Miller illustrated a specific example of a limitation of urban attention reaching a rural population. While it is unlikely that rural communities have this specific fear, I hope the writer follows up with discussion of the sort of forces resisting such interconnectedness and constant alerts.

Mollie M said...

I like this post! I also want to add how I think that social media can also create an odd atmosphere and contribute to interesting identity issues in small communities. Everyone's social media presence is different, some people choose to share lots of pictures of their food, others share very personal details of their lives. In small communities where the same group of people sees each other each day and know each other fairly well, sometimes individuals' social media platforms can project an entirely different person or character than the individual projects in daily life. This can create an interesting dynamic in both rural and urban places alike, but it I think that it is particularly interesting in small communities where people know a lot about each other and interact on a fairly regular basis.

Courtney Hatchett said...

I enjoyed this post and your attention to the "devil's advocate" position. While social media has created a space for rural people to connect to other rural or non-rural folks (such as seen in the Women's March), I also wonder to what extent it has bolstered other parts of a "rural identity." Especially with all the attention on the credibility of news sources and the awareness of how social media algorithms censor ourselves based on our biases. Most of what we see on the internet/facebook/twitter is a reinforced version of what we like/comment on/share. Thus, our online presence seems to be even more sheltered than what the climate is in our physical community. While this may bring solidarity to women marching in rural areas, it can also lead to people depending entirely on the information they self-select to see on their screens and bolster ill-conceived notions and hateful opinions. One only needs to start reading the comments section on a controversial news piece or the "trending" topic on facebook to get a first-hand glimpse....