My First Year On The Rural Side of the Digital Divide

This post originally appeared on Cyborgology as part of its “Small Town Internet” issue. Since I was thinking about several SMC members’ research while writing this, and worked on this post while co-writing with Jessa Lingel, I thought it apropos to post it here as well. There’s a lot more to be said about rural internet experiences and larger issues around social media, infrastructure, internet policy, digital inequities, etc, and I hope to write more about some of these topics soon.

I moved to rural Kansas a over a year ago. I live beyond Lawrence city limits, on the outskirts of Stull (where local legend places one of the gateways to hell), and 50 minutes driving to the nearest Google Fiber connection. It’s a liminal space in terms of broadband connection – the fastest network in the country is being built in the neighboring metropolitan area but when I talked to my neighbors about internet service providers in our area, they were confused by my quest for speeds higher than 1mbps. As this collection of essays on “small town internet” suggests, there’s an awareness that internet in rural, small town, and “remote” places exists, but we need to understand more about how digital connection is incorporated (or not) into small town and rural life: how it’s used, and what it feels like to use it.

One of my ongoing projects involves researching digital divides and digital inclusion efforts in Kansas City. The arrival of Google Fiber in Kansas City, KS and Kansas City, MO has provided increased momentum and renewed impetus for recognition of digital divides based on cost, access, education and computer literacy, relevance, mobility, and more discussion and visibility for organizations and activists hoping to alleviate some of these divides and emphasize internet access as a utility. I’ve argued that by reading digital media in relationship to experiences of “place,” we gain a more holistic and nuanced understanding of digital media use and non-use, processes and decisions around implementation and adoption, and our relationships to digital artifacts and infrastructures. In other words, one’s location and sense of place become important factors in shaping practices, decisions, and experiences of digital infrastructure and digital media.

The irony is not lost on me that while studying digital divides in a metropolitan area, I had chosen to live in a location with its own, unique series of inequities in terms of internet connection. These inequities have nothing to do with socio-economic instability or lack of digital literacy, as I had funds and willingness to pay a significant amount for internet service (comparable to the prices charged by urban-based, corporate ISPs), and everything to do with the fact that I lived in an area that felt as if it had been forgotten or intentionally bypassed by the internet service providers (ISPs) I had come to know living in other US cities and towns.

In this essay, I want to recount a few of the ways that my relationship to internet infrastructure and ISPs has changed since moving out to the country. (My relationship to social media and my social and economic dependence on internet connection has shifted as well, which I plan to write about elsewhere.) I’m speaking to my experience of digital connection and digital practices “after access,” from within a certain type of digital connectivity. I don’t claim that these interpretations or experiences are generalizable or representative, but they’re some of my initial observations having been an ubiquitously connected, digitally literate, urban dweller for the majority of my life and now living the last year and a half of residence in a rural place.

After moving in, I realized that although our house was advertised as having “high speed internet,” this didn’t mean a wired, cable broadband connection or even DSL, as we weren’t in either of these coverage areas. An internet connection meant that we could connect via two strictly data-capped options: satellite, 4G provided by a cell phone company, or a pay as you go 4G connection. Various blogs and forums hosting threads on ISP options overflowed with warnings about the high prices, data caps, and unreliability of satellite internet connections in rural environments and otherwise.

I posted on social media outlets and contacted friends about my frustrations with my internet access options and received suggestions to contact the cable company and ask them to expand their service to our area, offers to come to friends houses to use the internet, and empathy from people who grew up in rural areas sending condolences for the fact that I would never binge watch anything again. It might sound frivolous to some, but I admit that the thought of not being able to stream anything ever, Skype or share photos with friends and family members, and difficulty downloading large files did make me panic. I’d rather not fall victim to varieties of information, participation and culture gaps and I regularly need to stream, upload and download large files in order to do my job.

The local cable monopoly first offered us service over an old Motorola Canopy network at a maximum of 1mbps upload and download speeds. I had never consciously thought about the sheer amount of emails I received that included or requested attachments until I was unable to send one consistently from my home computer. Before the end of the first week the sound of an email arriving in my inbox while I was at home made me anxious. It meant that I would have to wait until the next time I was in town to respond with a comment other than, “I can’t send the attachment until tomorrow, I have limited access to the internet right now,” a euphemism which frustrated me and I thought made me sounds like a slacker. I cancelled the service after the two-week trial.

Now, I love my internet service provider, which is something I never thought I’d ever say. I have feelings of gratitude for them. They’re a local company who, according to their mission statement, saw “a lack of adequate Internet service options available to rural Northeast Kansas communities” and decided to build their own point-to-multipoint, line of sight network to service to our area. In 2008, they acquired another local ISP owned and operated by an area high school and later migrated their network from Motorola Canopy to 4G. They retrofitted the Canopy network antenna that the previous owner of our house had left, installed a 6 foot pole antenna on the roof of our house, and located a direct line of site to one of their towers. We now average around 5 mbps upload and download speeds. Although we experience noticeable lag time as compared to our workplace connections, and Skype, VoIP, and streaming often crash due to poor internet connection – we have a generally reliable connection with no data caps and at less than half the cost of any service provider in town.

This type of internet connectivity looks and feels different as well. The equipment that powers my connection demands more conscious and haptic attention. The pole and antenna mounted to my roof are taller than the rest of the house and are the first things you see from the driveway. I can see part of the tower that powers my internet, as well as two others that use the canopy network, across the prairie. I have to tend to my equipment. I often have to touch the antenna and pole to adjust them after being blown by strong winds and I’m regularly unplugging and pushing buttons to reset the router. The “seamfulness” of the experience makes me think about the “wires” and wireless frequencies, how they work or don’t work and why, in a way I never did while living in cities. For me, the infrastructure is very tangible and visible, which makes me think of myself as a digitally connected person more than ever before. I feel more connected to my connection, and more responsible for making it work.

I’ve wondered about the potential for mesh networks in my rural area. Mesh networks are decentralized, redundant, often inexpensive networks powered by antennae that act as both access points and routers, repeating wireless signals in a mesh-like configuration. In conversations with digital inclusion activists and community network organizations in urban areas, mesh networks are often suggested or already serve as a powerful alternative to more traditional ISPs and the networks they provide. However, the technical problem of distance persists as houses, barns, silos, garages, and other structures where antennae might be mounted can be over several miles away. More complicated is the fact that the pre-existing social structures and norms around proximity and sharing are also very different from cities or more densely populated areas. People who live out here tend to live “alone together.” I live closer to and encounter my neighbors’ cows, dogs, goats, and chickens than the people who own them, and where minimal (albeit friendly) interaction between people is the norm. There’s not much we share in terms of services and utilities: we pay for utilities individually, often from different service providers. The area is purely residential for miles and the commercial and family farms and orchards don’t have direct sales on premises. In many ways each household feels like a self-sustaining unit with their individual tanks of propane, tornado shelters, livestock, and food crops. I often wonder how introducing an infrastructure built on shared internet connection would mesh with these pre-existing social networks. But at the same time, I wish someone would propose a network like that out here, or finally send up those balloons.

Location-based social media in Boston

photo by ogilvypr

As part of the Social Media Collective this summer, I’ve been working on a couple of projects involving location-based social media, Foursquare in particular. For one of these projects I’ve been interviewing a range of Foursquare participants, as well as a variety of Boston area vendors who utilize Foursquare for their respective businesses. I’ve been gathering information and working to understand how and why managers of Foursquare’s “claimed venues” and their patrons use location-based services; how information sharing occurs over these social networks; how participants understand their own participation and the audiences for their actions; as well as attitudes about location announcement and locational privacy over these networks. There has been a significant amount of important research about sharing, privacy strategies and concerns, context collapse, social status, and illusions of control within social media networks — several of these publications have come out of the Social Media Collective at MSRNE. I want to expand on these studies by considering what changes and what remains the same once location and physical place are explicit parts of these social networks.

Location-based social media like Foursquare have been praised as premiere trends in social networking and criticized as systems that allow unwitting users to reveal too much information over a social network. Discussions about the benefits of location-based services (LBS) for commercial enterprise, as well as concerns over the intentional, accidental, or automatic disclosure of location have become central to policy debates, industry analyses, and popular practice and discourse. While many people and businesses are continually opting-in to location-based social media, several disparate imaginations of how location announcement can be profitable and purposeful or risky and dangerous are circulating. Although conclusions are being drawn about “why location matters”, relatively little is known about how people actually use location-based social media — especially concerning the physical/digital relationships and information flows between venues and the people who check-in to them.

So, when I found out that Boston’s “Social Media Day” was devoted to conversations and perspectives on the “evolution of location-based social media and content sharing”, I couldn’t stay away. The moderator and audience posed several interesting questions that echoed some of the themes in my study: what’s important or meaningful about location; how do you understand users attitudes about disclosing personal information; why would or should a business find location disclosure useful? One of the most interesting moments (aside from realizing that the majority of the crowd was probably too young to catch the moderator’s Phil Donahue reference! — see Twitter feed #smdaybos) was when the subject of privacy and privacy protection was broached. A rich spectrum of opinions about privacy protection were voiced among the panelists: privacy should be a major consumer concern and businesses should work hard to protect privacy; if you opt-in to social media then privacy is probably not a major concern; even if privacy is a concern, you’re still subject to the policies of social media companies and other entities beyond your control; maybe you’re not concerned about privacy because you really don’t know what’s happening with your data. All are fascinating perspectives that I’ve come across in my interviews as well.

However, a telling moment was when one of the panelists (who, like the majority of the other panelists, deals in location data to some extent) asked the audience to raise their hands if they had privacy concerns about disclosing their location. There were a lot of hands in the air. Surprised by this result, the panelist added: “I’m surprised because I’m not [concerned], and I’m in the business. I’m surprised by the number because I figured we crossed that path.” This sort of tension between business logics, realities, practices, and strategies, and those employed by consumers in regard to location-based social media is what I’m particularly interested in — not solely in regard to privacy and surveillance but in respect to the meaning of location announcement, the use of location data, and the desires, fears, and expectations surrounding location and social media as well.

I’m still working on analyzing and collecting interviews, so I’m going to hold off on offering any conclusions or suggestions just yet. But as I interact with more Foursquare participants and more vendors who participate in location-based social media, the stories they tell about reading and understanding location announcement converge and diverge in meaningful and unexpected ways. Both categories of Foursquare users tend to tell stories about location as some sort of “context” for “connection” — but often these stories tend to be very different. (Genevieve Bell’s presentation at Where 2.0 [especially around 7:20] gets at this idea as well, although not in regard to Foursquare). Additionally, ideas about who’s “listening” to location and who’s responding to information about location, when, why, and how has been brought up by several participants as both a strategy for interaction AND as a point of concern. Perhaps as a bit of a teaser for the final paper, I’ve found that: monitoring customer location isn’t always unwanted (nor is it always about monitoring the customer); announcing location doesn’t always mean you want to be heard; and rendering information about location as physical when it’s meant to be virtual (and vice versa) is as much about place as it’s about power.

As the use of location-based social media is becoming more pervasive among commercial enterprises as well as consumers and the public at large, I think it’s increasingly important to understand perspectives from all the parties operating within these mediated, location-based networks. If policies regulating privacy and commercial use of location information are going to be drafted, and vendors and consumers are going to continue to interact over location-based social media, we need to understand they ways in which they understand their own participation on these networks. Needless to say, I think ethnography can help with that.

If you’re a business that uses Foursquare or other location-based social media, or if you participate in location-based social media and would like to be included in this study, please contact me. I’d love to hear from you. Thanks!