More than 100 million people are said to be using Twitter. With all the buzz around the service – challenges about how many followers people have, tweeted photos appearing on the big screen in major stadiums, and every business having a twitter icon on their homepage – one would have to wonder what would small town people to use the service. That was exactly what I was able to learn at the recent 140 Characters Small Town Conference in Hutchinson, KS.
If you haven’t heard of the 140 Conferences, you may be interested to hear founder Jeff Pulver’s thoughts on what the meeting can do depends entirely on the people who come. As he and event co-host Becky McCray opened the Small Town conference last week, Pulver said:
In America, 300 million people live here [in small towns] and only 65 million people live in the big town and everyone else lives in a small town and the technology we have that is touching our lives, that is effecting the way we work and live, effects everybody. It doesn’t discriminate. The same way that someone in education in Hutchinson is being effected by this is very similar to what’s happening in New York City. In fact, I think in some places, people in small towns are leading the way in being able to take a technology and run with it, to show and lead and use it. And I’ve found it fascinating to discover that.
We put a lens on small towns and put a lens on people who are affecting change and doing things. Either someone is touched by these technologies or they touching technology. That’s what the conference is really about. You will see lots of interesting voices coming forward and sharing their stories, sharing themselves.
McCray is one of the millions of Americans living in small towns or rural areas. Running a small business and living on a farm in northwestern Oklahoma where they raise cattle, she urged Pulver to bring 140 to small towns last year. This year as she took the microphone, she asked the crowd if they wanted to hear her “rant.” She drew the following picture in the audience’s mind:
Last week I opened a copy of the Chicago Tribune and saw a huge inside page dedicated to a story about the drought effecting Oklahoma and Texas and Kansas and New Mexico. And splashed across the middle of that story was a huge photo of a farmer from Oolagah, Oklahoma, in his overalls and his ball cap standing in the cracked and parched earth that is the remains of his farm pond. In short, they made him look like a hick. And he was surrounded by this story on the people who are fighting the drought, and their substandard housing, and how they are broke dirt farmers and it kind of made the rest of us look like a hick too.
See, there’s not room in the photo to tell the story of that farmer. To explain that he probably has between one and two million dollars in assets under management. There wasn’t room to explain that in his pocket is a Blackberry and that he is constantly connected with commodity prices, that he is probably a skilled commodities trader to protect his business. There wasn’t room in the photo to talk about his understanding of commercial lending, of cash flow management, of financial statements of all the disciplines of management that he has had to master to survive as a farmer.
There wasn’t room in that surrounding story to tell any broader of a picture of small town than just the broke dirt farmer. But there is room online and there is room here. We have room. We have room to tell a real story….
We can change some perceptions about who we are. Starting with our own. Because probably a lot of you were told the same thing I was told – ‘If you have any brains and any ambition, you will move out of the small town to the big city so that you can pursue opportunity.’ Which is wrong because today we can pursue opportunity from anywhere.
As she talked through this, the images of my small towns came into mind. Having lived in a Mississippi Delta town of 600 people for several years, I can point to students who were being told that the real promise was in big cities both overtly and in more subtle ways. But I can also point to individuals who “bucked the system” and decided to invest in their small towns, who got involved in the schools, helped bring the arts to their communities and many times, those people were farmers. I was busily walking down Memory Lane when Becky turned to a turn of phrase farmers know well.
Becky talked about the “hybrid vigor of ideas” that is achieved by getting a variety of people in the room, I knew that the day, that this conference had the potential to be incredible. I know I learned a lot while I was there and it was great to be in a room filled with people so passionate about America’s small towns.
In the coming days, we will share some more of the other presentations that were shared during the day as perceptions shattered. And we’ll show more perspectives on just how much small town residents have to gain through social media.
Watch videos of Jeff Pulver and Becky McCray at #140conf Small Town: