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SF Blog: Internet Evolution

The information superhighway may have been repaved, but have the travelers changed?

In 1999, there was no Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram; mobile phones were used to talk to other people using actual voices; and social media meant sitting next to someone while reading a newspaper. If you wanted to get on the information superhighway to communicate with other farmers, it meant warning everyone in the house that the phone would be unavailable for the next few hours, sitting down in the office, firing up the ol’ desktop computer, listening to the squealing sound of the dial-up connection, and waiting several agonizing minutes for each web page to load.

You couldn’t just grab your phone out of your pocket, touch an icon on your home screen, and instantly be connected. You had to really want it back in the day. You didn’t go through all of that to tell the world you were at Starbuck’s. You actually came prepared with something to say.

Back in 1999, I joined Successful Farming magazine as the commerce editor for @g Online, as our website was cleverly called at the time. Scores of tech-savvy farmers went through this mind-numbing process to come to our website and talk to each other on our message boards every single day. This was the internet equivalent of walking to school uphill both ways through the snow carrying both of your sisters, then having to go back and get everyone’s lunches (hat tip to my dad for that analogy).

The corn and soybean growers compared notes in Crop Talk. Cattle and hog producers got together over a virtual cup of coffee in Livestock Talk. Puts and calls were discussed in Marketing Talk. The men (and a few brave women) had heated debates about politics, religion, and any other hot-button topic they could come up with in Ag Forum. Over in Women in Ag, young women and moms and grandmas discovered they weren’t the only ones who were simultaneously deliriously happy and soul-crushingly frustrated with having to be everything to everyone in the home and on the farm.

The more things change …

The process has certainly changed, and because of today’s ease of access, the content has changed in many ways, as well. Feel like posting a felfie (farm selfie) with your favorite cow? Go for it! Still laughing over that video of the screaming goat? Share away! Need to find a recipe or a remedy or an answer to anything? Just ask on Facebook. No need to crack open a book or spend precious seconds Googling it.

I’m not saying I’d rather go back to the dark days of the last century. I love the ease and accessibility of watching movies on my phone and seeing what my far-flung cousins are making for dinner on Facebook. If I do get nostalgic, all I have to do is try to stream a video on my home WiFi. We have satellite internet, which is our only option, and despite what the hopeful DSL coverage maps of the future say, will always be our only option. (See that little gray “no coverage available” speck in southeast Warren County, Iowa? That’s my house.)

The forums on our website still exist, but social media has taken the group discussion to a whole new level. I started the Women in Ag Facebook group seven years ago, and today, we have more than 32,000 members. Facebook has given us a platform to reach way more people than we ever did with the forums. Most of our Facebook members have never read Successful Farming magazine. Some of them aren’t farmers at all and are just interested in learning – or dreaming – of farm life. Others are just there to stir the pot and start arguments on hot-button topics. We try to weed those folks out, but as you know, the war against weeds is not easily won.

As an administrator for both the forums and the Facebook group over the past 16 years, I have witnessed the absolute best and worst humanity has to offer. I’ve seen grown people rip each other to shreds online and threaten each other’s lives over whether or not GMOs are safe (they are), or whether or not it’s OK to let your 6-year-old run the auger (it’s not). The attacks get so personal, and some members are so quick to turn on the admin, that more than once, I have feared for my own safety.

But I’ve also seen strangers offering prayers, sending care packages, and going to help other farmers after an accident. I’ve cried with group members when husbands and children have died. I’ve rejoiced with them when the rain eventually came, or when the pregnancy test was finally positive. I’ve received Christmas cards, letters, family photos, and cross-stitched dishtowels from these women. Real friendships have been forged between people who have never met.

Whether it’s 1999 or 2016, that’s powerful stuff.

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