By Jennifer M. Latzke
Just about the only thing conventional about the State of Now SmallTown 2012 conference are the nametags participants wear.
Everything else, from the participants, to the speakers, to the format is unconventional by deliberate design. This meeting isn't a grand show-and-tell convention with breakout seminars and hotel chicken dinners. Instead, it's a meeting of people and ideas that's shared over social media to the benefit of rural and small communities across the United States.
Welcome to the State of Now SmallTown, otherwise known over social media via the hashtag "#SmallTown2012."
A living room chat
The idea began three years ago, when Jeff Pulver, Great Neck, N.Y., the co-founder of Vonage, decided to bring people he'd met over Twitter together for an in-person event, the 140 Characters Conference. That first conference got its name for the amount of characters that are allowed in a single Tweet. It was in New York City, and it was meant to foster ideas about the effects of social media and interconnectivity on today's business atmosphere. The goal being to start a conversation about how new communications tools can help improve our rural communities. The next year Pulver expanded the 140 Conference to locations such as San Francisco, Tel Aviv, Barcelona--and the little closer to "rural" Hutchinson, Kan.
The platform is simple. Speakers can sign up to talk about whatever topic they choose, as long as it somehow relates to small towns. They're limited to 10-minute presentations, and PowerPoint slide shows are not allowed. As it is explained on the conference website, "Much like a Twitter message, speakers have to get to the point."
The stage is set up as a living room, with a sofa and chair and speakers are encouraged to make this a conversational atmosphere. Truly, if there weren't microphones and video cameras recording for the live streaming feed online, you really would feel like you were in a living room with friends discussing the topics of the day.
Becky McCray, Hopeton, Okla., was one of those first early adopters in the beginning, and was part of the reason the SmallTown conference came to Hutchinson. As she explained in her opening speech, "it's the one conference where if you're Tweeting during the speech, we're actually happy about it."
McCray started off the day of speakers by posing the question, "Do small towns have a future?"
"The thing we hear most often, the thing we hear and see about rural America is negative and pessimistic," she began. "You listen to that and start to wonder.
"But, that is wrong," McCray continued. "Small towns have a future. Small towns are critical. Small towns play a key role in a number of elements of our society, starting with agriculture and food production." From food, to natural resources utilization and conservation, McCray explained that people are needed to work in those fields, and small towns must be able to support them.
She explained that ensuring your small town has a future comes down to three things: successful locally owned small businesses; citizens willing to show their appreciation for that business staying local; and citizens willing to spend money with their local businesses.
"Starting a successful small business is the best thing you can do for the community," McCray explained. "Charles Tolbert of Baylor University did the research. He found that small businesses that are locally owned are associated with higher average income levels; lower income inequality; lower crime rates; lower poverty rates; and better health indicators." This is because they are invested in their local communities. And, small town people have an advantage in business because they understand the community and its needs.
for small-town living
McCray was just one of the day's speakers who shared her passion about rural small towns, as well as ideas to take home and implement in their businesses and charitable organizations.
For example Jennifer Campbell with the Kansas Humane Society in Wichita, Kan., shared how using Twitter and Facebook has helped their private non-profit animal shelter not only place adoptable animals in homes, but also raise funds for the shelter.
Carrie Mess, of Waupun, Wis., shared how she used social media connections to start the Waupun Equipment Hay Drive that donated and delivered hay to producers suffering from drought in Texas and Oklahoma.
Dave Quinn, Bastrop, Texas, discussed how, when his town in Texas was destroyed by wildfire, he used social media to disseminate information to neighbors and connect citizens and emergency responders.
Greg Peterson, Salina, Kan., made an appearance to share the wildly popular YouTube video, "I'm Farming and I Grow It" that he and his family created. He also discussed how viral videos can provide information in an easily sharable format and reach consumers across the world.
An agricultural panel that included Mess; Debbie Lyons-Blythe, White City, Kan.; Janice Person, St. Louis, Mo.; and Jodi Oleen, Manhattan, Kan., took a hard look at "Faceless Big Agriculture." Whether it's called "factory farming" or "big agriculture," the panelists tried to shed light on what their own every day lives actually entail and how they benefit the small-town communities they live and work in. Each is a blogger and uses social media to educate consumers and advocate for agriculture.
Going from here
For those who were unable to attend the conference in person, the entire conference can be found archived online at smalltown2012.stateofnow.com. There you'll find not only archived videos of the speakers from 2012, but also videos from prior conferences and links to some of the resource materials quoted. There's also a schedule of the full slate of speakers complete with links to their Twitter accounts and blogs.
And, if after watching those, people are inspired, McCray encouraged them to consider either attending a conference in their town or plan to host a SmallTown conference in their community.
"What's unusual about the SmallTown Conference is you can do this in your town, it doesn't take a lot of resources." McCray said. But, it's amazing the ideas that can be fostered when you get people together to talk about rural communities and small towns.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or email@example.com.