Pew Research Center. Social media usage by community type.

It’s no surprise that smaller rural communities vary greatly from larger cities in a variety of ways. What might be surprising is how modern digital forms of communication that seem on the surface like they would help “save people from professional isolation” aren’t always the panacea they are often thought to be. Don’t get me wrong, digital communication has tremendous value for connecting people across great distances and definitely serve an important role in any modern community. That said, in my experience within smaller communities old fashion human to human interactions are how things get done .

Let’s define digital communication a bit… For the purpose of this post it’s Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Slack, Google Messenger, Hip Chat, Redit, and the list goes on…

  • You’ll notice I didn’t include video conferencing. More on that later.

The good aspects of digital communication

Now let’s talk about some of the major things digital forms or communication are good at in a professional context.

  1. Regularly connecting with your team for focused problem solving, updates, and idea generation.
  2. Maintaining a connection to professional communities when physical presence isn’t possible or desired (depending on the format).
  3. Participating in remote educational opportunities.
  4. Communicating with customers.

Sounds good enough right?

The possibilities provided by modern forms of communication are pretty amazing. I’ve worked as a remote employee for many years now. Even when living in the same city as the rest of my team we often opted to work from home because of the ability to focus on problems without distraction while the ability to use various forms of digital communication to connect as needed enables constant collaboration. We live in a day and age where it’s very possible and often more beneficial to have at least some ability to work remotely.

The digital barrier is getting smaller but it’s still there

I think it’s safe to say that there are social dynamics at play that are much more powerful when physically being around people without the technological barrier. However, I am by no means claiming that this is needed all the time to have a successful team but it’s pretty clear we benefit from being around each other at least some of the time. Why is that? I’ll spare any psychological references to academic papers and just share some of my experiences.

It’s worth noting that video conferencing can get us a huge step closer to in-person interactions via digital means. In my experience being able to see each other helps tremendously to connect with others in a way that is much closer to how we as humans have evolved. At this point video conferencing is the next best thing to being in person but it also has it’s challenges which I won’t go into here. Of course Virtual Reality is around the corner which could be the next level of remote conferencing.

Small communities network with conviction

I’ve lived in communities ranging from deep in the woods with one neighbor for as far as the eye could see to medium sized cities like Denver Colorado. From my experience it’s the smaller communities where people are more eager (not just willing) to spend genuine time with colleagues. As the founder of put it, “we may have less people involved but the ones who show up are highly engaged”. I recently read a great article that argued for focusing on meaningful relationships when networking rather than the more traditional hand out as many business cards as possible method. Throughout my professional career I’ve always focused on building meaningful relationships with colleagues because I feel that anyone I meet who is kind and respectful deserves to be given the time and consideration to have meaningful conversation. This is basic human relationship building yet it’s sometimes lost in the mess of professional development. Even though this idea isn’t new it struck me that this is something people had to be told is ok to do.

When I lived in Boulder and Denver I was pretty active in the technical communities and could clearly see the pressure to run from one idea to another trying to keep up with all the people, ideas, and potential opportunity. In the end, by chasing too many ideas many lack the deeper connections that I’ve found most valuable to career development. People are all too often quick to take the old school advice of focusing on meeting as many people as possible in a networking environment which, ironically, is an approach that leaves many people on all sides feeling uneasy.

Small communities build relationships leading to more collaboration

This is where professionals within smaller communities can naturally find themselves more comfortable. Smaller communities simply have less things to chase and so allow for more time to get to know each other. In the Roaring Fork of Colorado I’ve made a lot of friends who have business backgrounds in all kinds of areas but because we give ourselves the time to truly get to know each other we find overlap in our work that in turn provides opportunity for professional collaboration that didn’t necessarily seem obvious at first. This has gone to such an extent for me that I find myself intensely interested in an aspect of business that I’ve always kept at arms length. This 180 degree change likely wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t built trusting relationships with some of the people I’m lucky enough to be around today.

Small communities have hared cultural interests leading to more invested professional networks

Smaller communities usually (in my experience) have cultural characteristics that are expressed through certain activities. Spirituality, farming, ranching, hunting, and recreation are a few examples. Where I live people tend to share an interest in outdoor recreation and the wilderness in general. It’s pretty common for professional contacts to turn into mountain bike or rock climbing partners. This relatively easy transition between the professional and personal aspects of life helps build a more cohesive community that is more invested in the long term health of that community.

Small communities leap right over the digital gap

There are still a lot of people who either are not participating on forms of digital communication, like social media, or who simply miss communication in the staggering amount of information we’re exposed to every day. The Pew Research Center shows rural communities consistently using social media less than non-rural communities (see chart above). For these people/situations there is no question that meeting in-person is important to any professional relationship or collaboration. It’s worth noting that in my experience there are all kinds of people not using social media. I regularly am around people of all ages, backgrounds, levels of technical aptitude, and influence who do not participate in social media.

One common way that smaller communities ensure regular networking is through meetup groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, Small Business Administrations, grass roots professional networking groups, and more recently co-working/startup programming events. These regular groups often are the life blood of smaller communities because they provide consistency where opportunities to meet as a group are more scarce than found in the city. Some may see that scarcity as a negative but I personally have seen it as a positive because people are more engaged in supporting their neighbors. These also offer opportunity to include people into the group who may not have built the social connections on social media. Remember that many people don’t use or don’t rely on social media to build professional relationships.

Small communities rely on a strong foundation of trust as a foundation

What this all leads to is a community where people are quick to reach out for support because there is a strong layer of trust. This kind of trust is nearly impossible to build through digital communication. The problem is that digital communication fundamentally abstracts communication in a way that isn’t the best for building a strong foundation of trust. Trust is not something that can be built to any real extent on transactions of content to message boards. This type of communication helps connect us but it doesn’t replace the type of interaction we’ve evolved to rely on.

The bottom line is that human to human boots on the ground professional relationships are still and always have been fundamental to how things get done in smaller communities.

Just how weird is a conference call anyway?

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