I’m back!

Back in civilization, and back to my iMac, my 3G network, my Twitter, my blog. Don’t get me wrong – I had a wonderful Christmas, spending time with my in-laws in frozen, but beautiful Manitoba. We ate, and talked, and ate, and played cards, and ate, and opened gifts, and ate some more. It was all the best things about Christmas rolled up into one terrific week.

But, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss my beautiful, wonderful technology.

My husband’s family lives in a very, very small town 100km north of Winnipeg called Arborg. With a population of about 1000, scarce Internet, no cell phone service (at least not on your average iPhone) and a winter climate that brings back not-so-fond memories of my days in living in the Arctic, you’d think that a city girl like me would have run screaming out of there as fast as I could.

Of course, that didn’t happen, mostly because I’m really a small town girl at heart. Having grown up in a town not unlike Arborg, I am very at home in this kind of environment.

Ironically, during the 5 unplugged days I spent in Arborg, I learned a great deal about how social networks operate. Here’s what I learned:

Leadership is Vital
Every community necessarily has its leaders. The leaders are the people who blaze the trail for everyone else, and fight the tigers along the way. They are the ones who are infinitely helpful and kind and generous, even though it takes up a lot of their time and energy.

In Arborg, one of those leaders is my Father-in-law. He’s not the Mayor of the town, but from what I’ve seen, he probably could be. My Father-in-law is a waste management specialist. He runs a septic truck, which keeps him busy enough, but also is in charge of all the garbage collection for the town. That means at least once a week, he goes to everyone’s house and business in the whole town. And while he’s running around town, sucking tanks and disposing of everyone’s smelly garbage, they all talk to him, which means he probably knows more about what’s going on in Arborg than anyone else.

He’s a leader because he’s totally tapped into the network. Every day he comes home with a hundred stories about what’s been happening around town. Not only that, but he’s infinitely helpful. The day we arrived, he was off with another guy, delivering Christmas turkeys to underprivileged townspeople. During Christmas dinner, he took a call from someone having septic problems without batting an eye. He told them he’d get out to them as soon as possible the next day. He’s a good leader because he listens, and understands the needs of the people in his town. And then he helps in any way he can.

Here’s something to consider – what kind of leader are you being in your social networks? If you’re like my Father-in-law, you’re listening, understanding and helping. And then you’re doing it some more.

The Network is Thriving
I saw a bulletin board in the little motel we were staying at, and it was jammed with business cards. This board is Arborg’s social network.

There is a business card for just about every business in town on this little board. Hairdressers, insurance companies, home heating, jewellery, carpentry, you name it…it’s there. There’s no computer. No LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter. Just cards, tacks and cork.

In a town like Arborg, this really is the way they network. This is how they show each other what they do, and provide a way to get in touch. It’s a means of communication and connection and I suspect, even collaboration.

Here’s the thing – notice how each card is the same size. Nobody’s card is covering up anyone else’s card. They are all sharing the space equally.

One of the things I love about social media is that it levels the playing field. In this space, it doesn’t matter if you are an average Joe or a billionaire. Nobody cares if you are a rock star or a karaoke singer. Whether you are a famous comedian or just like to have a good laugh, you are welcome here. We are all sharing this space on equal terms. Much like the bulletin board network in Arborg, we are all able to contribute and show value to others. And together, we’re all able to succeed.

My point is – social networks have existed as far back as we can imagine. Today, we are fortunate to have this new, amazing layer of technology to help us scale it from our tiny communities to the entire world. This global scale means that we hold a great deal potential in our hands. We now have the power to do great things not only for the success of our communities, but ultimately for the success of humankind.

Having this amount power a the click of a mouse is huge. But, it doesn’t mean we have to act any differently or be anything else other than what we already are as human beings. Success in a small town not dependent on the latest tools, tricks, or techy toys, and success in social media is not any different. Like in small towns, it’s only really dependent on two things – strong leadership and a thriving network.

As 2008 comes to a close, and so many of us are eagerly anticipating all the amazing possibilities that the new year will bring, considering how we are operating in our social networks and where all this social media stuff is headed is vitally important to our progress.

What do you think the next step is?