Staying relevant in a virtual world

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social media networking

Years ago, my mother would dial up her internet and wait for her email inbox to download new messages.

She was waiting for one thing in particular: Sheep-L, an email network of people, who were all interested in the same thing. You guessed it. Sheep.

She joined it not long after we got a desktop computer — not long after the internet became a thing, really. Someone would post a topic and members would chime in, like a long-distance letter, zooming the world, with new parts added each time someone replied.

Networking

My mother is a self-taught sheep farmer. When she took over the farm, she had no family legacy to draw from. She grew up a city kid and developed a passion for farming later. She never went to school to study agriculture.

Her classroom was hands-on learning on the farm and networking. Over the years, she traveled the world and met many shepherds of all sorts, thanks, in large part, to Sheep-L.

My mother is still a member, although it’s not very active anymore. People now gravitate to, you guessed it, Facebook, and other sites.

She remembers it fondly though, as a place where friendships were fostered. She still travels to events she learned about through the list and corresponds occasionally with friends she met, virtually and in person.

“In many respects, it was a political forum,” she told me. “We solved the problems of the world.”

Evolution

My journalism career has developed alongside the social networking platforms that litter the virtual landscape now. I have a love-hate relationship with them.

On one hand, I love the opportunities to share stories with a broad range of people. On the other hand, it can be a bullhorn for ignorance.

Where does agriculture fit into it?

“Progression is defined as ‘the process of developing or moving gradually towards a more advanced state.’ As time barrels forward, each institution, industrial sector or culture must adapt to societal needs. Agriculture is no different,” writes Kent Leonhardt, West Virginia’s agriculture commissioner, in a recent opinion piece.

His editorial delved into the opportunities his state’s agricultural sector has to innovate, but I think a broader angle is also important. How can agriculture be nimble in today’s social media tap dance? Is that really a more “advanced state”?

Farm and Dairy talked with a number of farmers for an Aug. 8 story about a recent crackdown on the social media giant, Facebook, that has people who market animals and animal products scrambling for other venues.

I’ve had several well-used, livestock-related Facebook groups disappear in recent weeks — and followed the ensuing panic.

Stay the course?

Cat Urbigkit, a Wyoming rancher and writer, wrote about the changes in an Aug. 5 column in Cowboy State Daily. Facebook, as a social media giant, is powerful. She wants us to keep sharing our stories there. We need to, she says.

“We need Facebook as a platform to share our stories of what it’s like to live in close association with animals, and with nature. To share the stories of how animals feed our bodies, nourish our souls, and sustain the world,” Urbigkit writes.

In a May 18 article for The New Yorker, Cal Newport, admits he has never had a social media account. When people ask what life is like without it, he has them envision a quiet park bench.

(We farmers go with some animals, a John Deere, freshly mown hay or a local grange pancake breakfast on a Saturday morning. But you get the picture.)

Back to the future

Newport ponders the future further, as he unpacks emerging, independent social media platforms.

“For the exhausted majority of social-media users, however, the appeal of the proverbial quiet bench might outweigh the lure of a better Facebook. In this vision of the future, there will be many more social-media platforms but far fewer people spending significant time on any of them. Social media has reshaped our culture, and this has convinced us that it is fundamentally appealing,” Newport writes. “Strip away its most manipulative elements, though, and we may find that it’s less rewarding than it seems.”

We use these avenues to connect with other people. At the same time, we can build community right where we are. In the Aug. 8 issue, we share how one local fair came together to raise money for a young teen in need of medical care. Those stories are not rare on our pages.

That’s where we are. At a crossroads. It’s true, both for us, as farmers and for us, as a newspaper. How do we share our stories in a changing technological landscape? What do we need to do to stay nimble and attuned to how people share their stories in the future?

Maybe it will be more personal and less virtual. Maybe it’s a bit of both.

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Farm and Dairy Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Miller was tapped to lead the newsroom in 2019. A veteran journalist, dog wrangler and traveler, she lives on a 220-acre, 325-ewe commercial sheep farm in Lisbon, Ohio, which she runs in partnership with her mother. She can be reached at 330-817-6179 or editor@farmanddairy.com.

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