The Gap Between Rural Communities And Online Communities

Pat Quirke is an auctioneer, and like many other small business owners he likes to take full advantage of his internet connection. Apart from his website and blog, he has a well-established presence on Twitter and Facebook. In fact, so successful have his online ventures been that he has recently managed to sell a property through Twitter.  All the viewings for the property were arranged through tweets. Things went so smoothly that when the deposit came to be paid the client had to ask directions to Pat Quirke’s office as he didn’t know where it was.

For Pat, there is no problem leveraging all the advantages of the Internet while working in a small town in rural Ireland. It’s when you leave the town itself and go into the true countryside that the promise of the Internet age fades quickly.

Five years ago, when my husband John and I moved to Clonmel, Ireland, Tipperary’s largest town, I was surprised to find that the only broadband access available for those of us living on the outskirts of the town was supplied by just one independent wireless broadband supplier.

With no other choice, we took a subscription and a box was installed at the top of the house to communicate with a mast on top of the Comeragh Mountains. All went well until spring of the following year when foliage on the trees obstructed the signal, and our connection practically vanished! It was extremely frustrating to connect to the Internet and with the next gust of wind be knocked off again. By a stroke of good fortune, Eircom had upgraded their lines and we were able to take out a contract with them.

All went well for the next two years, and then we decided to move outside of the town and deeper into the countryside. However, giving up the life of a townie also meant parting with our reliable broadband. I had been using Facebook and online forums as a way of keeping in contact with family and old friends, and for making new acquaintances, so I sorely felt the absence of continuous access.

We were told that it would be another couple of years before the lines would be upgraded, so we cancelled the subscription. There seemed little point in paying for a phone service which came with the broadband package when, in our family, we all have mobile phones.

It is ironic to think that in a rural community where online facilities would be of great benefit, a good broadband infrastructure is unavailable. As a student, I have the option of downloading lecture notes and uploading my completed assignments from home. I work part-time as a typist and could also opt to have dictation e-mailed to me and to upload typed documents to the company website. Studying and working this way would free up time that I could better spend in the home or with my two daughters, but with an unreliable internet connection this is not possible.

Networking online poses problems for me as well.  Conversations are often difficult to follow on Twitter and other online forums when you’re lagging behind and responding out of sync. Simple tasks such as uploading photos to Flickr or Fotopedia become a chore when you have to either crop or manipulate photos and then wait an age for them to upload.

Poor connectivity could be why rural dwellers seem slow to embrace the likes of Foursquare. It is not much fun to check into places on Foursquare when you’re the only one ‘checking in’. The excitement of being Mayor of ‘everywhere’ soon wears off.  On a recent visit to Killarney, I found myself competing with the tourists who had been passing through the town, had checked into various locations and added tips for restaurants, etc. With the exception of a friend in Clonmel, with whom I have been regularly contesting with for the role of Mayor for our local Super Valu supermarket, I hadn’t experienced this element of ‘the game’ before.

Earlier in the year, when I travelled to Listowel for Writer’s Week, I used Twitter as a tool to meet up with others who had come as well. It was funny to sit talking to a girl in Lynch’s Bakery only for it to dawn on both of us that we had already been communicating with each other through Twitter.

Clonmel Coffee is a great example of how online social networking can bring a community together. People from the locality meet up monthly and discuss everything from technology and social media to local news. This is invaluable to a ‘blow-in’ like myself looking for local services and recommendations.

With the increasing number of businesses and government agencies now online and communicating directly with the public, and as the importance of social networking and online relations grows and gains recognition, hopefully those of us living in the country won’t have to wait too long before our access to the Internet matches that of major urban areas.

Susan can be found on Twitter as @queenofpots, and she blogs at Queen of Pots!