The New Party Line Is Crackling

Do rural Americans use telecommunications in special ways? A recent study suggests that Yonderites are twittering and IMing and chatting with friends closer to home.

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As a kid, I loved to play with my grandfather’s decommissioned crank telephone. Someone had glued the broken receiver back together, but my grandfather still couldn’t part with what had been his first home phone.

Hearing it ring was a pretty big deal for Grandma Hazel and Granddaddy Julian, signaling that news of some kind or another was arriving at their rural Texas ranch. All other activities came to a stop; the telephone-caller was indulged with the family’s undivided attention. (Likewise, my great-grandmother in Kentucky didn’t hesitate to listen in on her neighbors’ phone conversations via a party line.)

My ancestors’ telephone rituals seem quaint today, but their habits weren’t unusual. In the early days of phone communications, rural users and their novel phone habits (specifically the eavesdropping bit) perplexed Bell Telephone. For instance, rural Americans “visited” nearby family and friends by sitting in on a neighbor’s conversation or even rounded up families to gather at the home of someone with a working phone. The phone became something like a campfire where folks gathered to exchange stories and bond. (The Coleman Corporation is riffing on this phenomenon with its new ad campaign, “The Coleman Campsite: The Original Social Networking Site.”)

Eric Gilbert
and two other social computing researchers, experts in how rural
customers adopted early social technology, decided to explore what
might be happening in today’s rural communities. They examined 3,000
rural and urban MySpace.com
accounts (at the time, MySpace was the most popular social media
service) including 340,000 friendships and 200,000 personal messages.

Leslie, Georgia, has its own museum of the rural telephone.

“We found that rural users had fewer friends, and the friends that they did have tended to reside closer to their home, about half as far away as the typical urban user,” says Gilbert, a PhD candidate in the University of Illinois computer science department.

The group also learned that rural women are more likely to use social media than men, and they are more apt to set their profiles to “private” than their urban counterparts. In short, rural users relied on social media primarily to bond with existing close friends rather than building friendship bridges to users in other areas of the country.

Their 2008 paper, “The Network in the Garden: Designing Social Media for Rural Life” is available online.

“We haven’t followed up on research and the landscape of social media has changed a lot in the last two years,” says Gilbert. “But I would expect similar results today.”

Twitter anyone? Yes, you can even follow the Daily Yonder on this popular social networking site.
The landscape has indeed changed. For one thing, more adults are using social media sites now. Facebook has eclipsed MySpace in popularity and recently purchased a competitor, Friend Feed. Twitter is a household word now.

There is still ample room for social computing innovation, however, even within the age demographic most likely to use social media: 18 to 24 year olds. There’s also an opportunity for designers to create online services with rural users in mind. For example, Cliff Lampe, an assistant professor at Michigan State University’s telecommunications department, is helping individual communities develop customized social media sites targeting rural Michigan teens.

“We’ve got a real problem with ‘bright flight’ here,” says Lampe. “Young people are leaving Michigan. Recently I heard the problem described as ‘a long, slow Katrina exodus.’ It’s bad. We’re working on ways to use social media to get kids to look around their communities and see that there are businesses and other opportunities for them at home.”

Lampe and others are working with four rural schools scattered across Michigan. Students, working in collaboration with a team of designers, help create and promote original social network sites in exchange for college credit.

When asked if he thinks the conclusions of “The Network in the Garden” reflect rural social media habits in Michigan, Lampe notes, “There’s definitely a gender bias toward females with the students. Women, especially young women, are more social than males. Fifteen and 16 year-old females have a better sense of their own presence than males and that transfers into their use of social media.”

Lampe still sees major challenges to the growth of social media, principally disparities in broadband access.

Telephone advertisement from the 1930s promising instant communication with the whole U.S.A.

“In one place, we have people who are pretty savvy about social media. But in another county with a total population of 12,000 people, where no one has broadband except a few places near the highway, people are not sure how to get their heads wrapped around the idea,” says Lampe. “They can’t access YouTube.com or any of the other sites readily and get familiar with them because they don’t load. And the high school blocks social media sites, so kids can’t get to them during the day. ”

Lampe is quick to laud “a few bright spots, some rural companies doing really cool things” with regard to their online presence and social media marketing. And he’s heard first-hand how enterprising rural residents have adapted their web use.

“We hear these stories of people parked in the lot next to the local nursing home, just to get wi-fi access and log on to Facebook,” he says.

It may look a little different, but it seems that the old-fashioned custom of “visiting” is alive and well in the Information Age.

 

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