How Small Towns Are Social Networks

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?

Category:social media
Holiday Downtime
How to REALLY Get Social Media Working For You


  • December 27, 2008 at 8:34 pm

    What do I think the next step is? I have no idea. But can I tell you what I hope it is?

    I hope it’s the move away from the ‘more is better’ approach to online networks that dominates the thinking of so many of the leading lights of the online realm.

    One of the reasons your father-in-law is a leader in his community is that it’s a community small enough for a leader to emerge and engage with everyone. It’s harder to do in a place like Ottawa – which is why we tend to segment ourselves and look for that sense of community online.

    But even in these online communities, most people seem hellbent on building the biggest community they can. He who has the most twitter followers wins.

    Social media advocates who happen to work in agencies are constantly telling their clients that SM is about the quality of interactions, not the quantity. So why then are they so worried about the number of followers they have? They preach quality but still measure their own personal success by quantity.

    A bulletin board full of business cards works because the board is of a manageable size. What if the organizer (if there is such a beast) decided to secure as many cards as she could? What if she was constantly trying to grow that manifestation of her network? Would it remain a useful tool?

    SM tools allow us to reach more people in more diverse locations than ever before. But just because we CAN connect with 500,000 people doesn’t mean we SHOULD.

  • December 27, 2008 at 9:32 pm

    You said: “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.”

    But the curse of growing up in a small town was that I couldn’t avoid the people that were annoying or hurtful. There is no unfollow or block in small towns. Ahh….the power of twitter!

    Annie’s last blog post..Abrupt

  • December 28, 2008 at 10:27 am

    @ Joe. I’d say that the “leaders” that are more concerned with numbers over quality aren’t really leaders at all, more wannabe leaders who are trying to prove some non-existent point.

    The true leaders are exactly the ones that Suze mentions in her post – doing just because they can, with no wish for recompense or recognition.

    People aren’t dumb – we know who the real leaders are and who the faux leaders are. They’ll soon be found out. In the meantime, the real ones and the upcoming ones will be helping instill change and positive impact.

    Danny Brown’s last blog post..Learning from Cats

  • December 28, 2008 at 10:37 am

    “Listening, understanding and helping. And then you’re doing it some more.” You’re right in saying that people in small towns have been doing this forever. I saw the same thing growing up in a tiny town.

    Now people are trying to do the same thing on a huge scale via Twitter and other social media tools. The listening component has to be in place before any understanding, and ultimately the helping, can be reached.

    Keep up with the great posts! Look forward to reading more!

  • December 28, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    […] good friend Susan Murphy wrote an interesting post today, about how small towns are social networks. She points out that small towns have led the way for years when it comes to networking and seeing […]

  • December 28, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    Why would someone place a business card on the wall? Because everyone else is doing it, because some of the names look familiar, or to hope for inbound sales leads as the result of someone else seeing it?

    Annie, I enjoyed reading that story. I can relate to much of it. But there is a way to unfollow others: by remaining a hermit, locked in your own bubble and not interacting with the community. The question there is how to persuade the hermit out of his crab to experience the network.

    Ari Herzog’s last blog post..My Top 12 Blog Posts from 2008

  • […] It turns out that I followed the URL on her Twitter profile to her website and confirmed that she was the author of the article. To her credit, her own blog has links to her email address, Twitter profile, and Skype accounts. Not only that, but the article makes it easy to comment and she even uses CommentLuv. See it here: How Small Towns are Social Networks […]

  • December 28, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    I can’t tell from here, but are there any cards for the traditional, earthbound social networks? Lions, Masons, KofC, JayCees, the Chamber of Commerce? The sort of meeting place that normally welcomed likeminded civic folk and aggregated the power and the dedication of the individual?

    The key to effective social networks is maintaining a common sense of purpose and a feeling that change and progress is still achievable.

    Small towns benefit greatly from the goodwill and influence of individuals. So do neighbourhoods, alumni classes, your work unit and other small groups.

    The challenge for social media advocates will be to mute all the talk of larger networks influencing the individual, and learn to emphasize collective benefits (that might not necessarily be to the advantage of corporate or organizational sponsors)

  • December 28, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    This should be required reading!

    What a great piece. I truly enjoyed reading that and am going to RT it for sure.

    Oh and I now have you in my RSS feeds. I look forward to more!

    John Berringer’s last blog post..johnberr: @trishussey Glad to hear u r having fun. Your kids must be happy to see you too!

  • December 28, 2008 at 8:34 pm

    It’s very true. Those post up boards of business cards are social networks too. They still exist in lots of places around me here in Cleveland. Like at the paint shop, or the hardware store, or the day care center.

    Social networking is just “tools”. It’s the same as before the Web, but faster and cheaper and better.

  • December 28, 2008 at 10:55 pm

    Like your father-in-law, leaders have to deal with the s&*t and garbage as well as the fun stuff. This is a metaphor to run with :D.

    Two men in my city (Spokane) who are very networked in the real-life sense have now started a geographically oriented social network,

    With only a soft informal launch via email to friends–and not everyone in their really large contact lists, either, just selected people who are themselves networkers by nature–they’ve gotten hundreds of followers in a few weeks.

    Twitter started with the network, then the geographical and interest groups emerged. This local model start with the geography and then added the tech to enable faster connections.

    Venturing a prediction, I expect to see groups choosing a specific social media enabling tool, whether it’s Twitter, Ning or something else, and asking their members to adopt wholesale, just as they’ve added email, Web sites, and blogs to old-fashioned meetings and mailings.

    The pain in the tuchis is that I’ll bet every group I belong to will choose a different tool–unless I volunteer as techmeister for all my groups first and get them on Twitter :D.


    Barb Chamberlain’s last blog post..The Zen of Fingernails: Giving Up Attachment

  • December 29, 2008 at 3:20 am

    Thanks for the great post, particularly during the time of the recent flap over “authority”.

    For the last couple of years, we have been exploring how the participants in all of our communities, whether geographic, relationship or affinity, can become better informed and individually stronger, which will result in stronger communities. We call the effort C3 – Complete Community Connection, and have been charting progress at

    The comments here and at Danny Brown’s followup post at raise concerns we also share – relevance, context, accuracy, timeliness, etc.

    So, we think it is our job to create the “elegant organization”, championed by at least Jeff Jarvis, to allow individuals in our region to make sense of what is happening, and to get exactly the information they need, when and where they need it.

    We are looking for all the help we can get!

    Thanks for the perspectives.

    Chuck Peters
    The Gazette Company
    Cedar Rapids, Iowa

    Chuck Peters’s last blog post..Relationship = Attention x Trust

    • December 30, 2008 at 8:30 am

      Hey, John – you’re from a place called “Murphy”. I like you already 🙂

      You raise an excellent point about relating all this stuff to real life. So many older people I know are so afraid of the technology, they don’t want to even try it. If you can provide examples of how it can enhance their ability to communicate and connect (which is really what it’s all about!) and relate it to their life as they know it now, then I think you’ll be onto something.

      Thanks for sharing your insights.

  • December 29, 2008 at 8:40 am

    I love this post! I also took a bit of an “internet fast” over the holidays – was kind of nice to get out of the echo-dome/blogosphere . . .

    I see the next step as more opportunities for our online connections to meld into our offline lives. I like to think that as iphones, twitter, and applications such as brightkite become more commonplace and prevalent, we’ll see impromptu “tweet-ups” and in-person connections, facilitated by initial online connections start to occur.

    Granted there will be issues around privacy and safety, but hope as we all grow more comfortable with online transparency, a lot of these issues will find a way of working themselves out.

    faryl’s last blog post..Dad Dreams: Like the Original Becky, But Way Better

  • […] that’s why I have the word “muse” in my name. Sometimes, like for my last post on small town social networks, I spent a few days mulling it over in my head. I don’t write notes (usually). I DO do […]

  • December 29, 2008 at 11:03 am

    Wow. This is an excellent post. I really love the parallel between the small town corkboard and the ability of social media to democratize. Thanks for writing this. I look forward to reading more.

    Jason Baer’s last blog post..The Ultimate Social Media Quote

  • December 29, 2008 at 11:20 am

    This is a really nice analogy to help remind us what makes Social Media work. In particular the neutrality suggested by the cork board is a wonderful parallel to SM reality. It really doesn’t matter “who” you are it only matters “what” you have to contribute. Great job.

    James Hipkin’s last blog post..Happy Holidays

  • December 29, 2008 at 11:33 am

    Nice linkage between the physical social network and the virtual one. And like others have said, the democracy of the cork board flattens the authority of the members, something that we should all pay attention to after the recent flap over authority.

    Warren Sukernek’s last blog post..Twitter Authority Firestorm

  • December 29, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    SuzeMuse » How Small Towns Are Social Networks…

    This is getting at the Toqueville stuff!…

  • […] bit of jargon we apply to make ourselves sound smart. Want proof? Read Susan Murphy’s recent post examining the thriving social media network in Arborg, […]

  • December 29, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    thanks for this, i’ve always been partial to small towns and one of the things i’ve learned living in them is people have a very difficult time with activits who speak/stand out in a different way, one that threatens the status quo – i see this reflected in online networks with established leaders as well.

    i also see within the scope and diversity of these new media the great potential for cooperation and collaboration, especially on what really matters, as you say here…

    “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.”

    tim o’reilly said something similar in an interview with scoble…”the talent of our entrepreneurial community needs to be turned towards solving the world’s great problems as opposed to delivering yet another consumer experience…we really do have to get serious”

  • December 30, 2008 at 8:19 am

    This is an excellent post and got me to thinking about a number of issues related to social networking, and how we can merge the offline with the online networks.

    I live in a small town hundreds of miles away from Arborg, but I bet the people of that town share a lot in common with the people who live in my town, Murphy, NC.

    Most of the social networking is offline and the older people in the community are only reluctantly moving online. Some of the reasons for the move include lower costs, farther reach, and faster communications.

    I’m working to help those who are interested to move online and to participate in networking here, but it’s a slow process.

    The photo of the bulletin board gave me a flash of insight. One way to bridge the transition is by providing something people already know how to use. Maybe a simple online bulletin board would be useful.

    I’m still mulling that over.

    I’m happy to have found your blog and look forward to your future posts.

    Act on your dream!


    John Dilbeck’s last blog post..Small towns, social networks, and communicating

  • December 30, 2008 at 11:18 pm

    Fantastic post Suze! You touch on the real and virtual worlds of social networking, but you also help to plant the seed, and help us contemplate what ‘might’ be missing from the existing options we are familiar with…and functioning with…

    You say:
    ” 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.”

    This only makes sense, right? I mean, there are followers, who will do so ‘blindly’ and base their decision to do so on what? Maybe history, or peer pressure or perhaps the lack of genuine interest in researching what it is that a ‘so-called’ leader has to offer, in terms of guidance or change, etc.

    However, as we all become more adept at social networking, and communicating our ideas clearly and feeling justified in our positions as contributing members of society or community (whether it be web-based or proximity-based), we expect a certain level of leadership and strength of character to be demonstrated by our community leaders and creators.

    Is it trail blazing, or is it awareness of a community’s needs and the nerve to stand up and speak up for what is required?


  • […] a tweet a few mornings back from the CEO with a link to this post from Suze Muse called “How Small Towns Are Social Networks” Ironically, during the 5 unplugged days I spent in Arborg, I learned a great deal about how […]

  • […] talking about enduring human relationships, the fundamentals of which do not change, as noted by Sue Murphy: My point is – social networks have existed as far back as we can imagine. Today, we are fortunate […]

  • February 28, 2009 at 2:12 am

    That is really great. Gathering people with the same interest is really good. Thank you for expanding my knowledge.

  • February 28, 2009 at 2:36 am

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.



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