Small town communities step into a modern world

A local tragedy reveals social media's role in the persisting power of small town communities

Source: Kathryn Sandilands

A boy from my old high school died last night. I’m reading it on Facebook; it’s been four hours since the news got out and there are hundreds of comments. He was in the year below me and from the next village over. My best friend calls me in tears – he was close to her brothers, she says, he came round to her house all the time. I wanted to talk to someone from home, she tells me. At this moment I am 300 miles away from the town where we went to high school, at university in England. I did not know the boy who died. But, somehow, I count.

It’s almost the Christmas holidays and my student room is a mess. I’ve got postcards from home on the noticeboard beside my desk. They’re old photos of the high street from around the 1970s – my mum bought them for me from the local newsagents when I begged for post during those first homesick weeks last year. Not much has changed in town during the forty years or so since that photo was taken to make cheap postcards. There’s more parking spaces, maybe. One or two of the shops have changed hands. My university friends would find it funny that I’d know that because none of them are from small towns.

When I moved down south to go to university, I was looking forward to living in a city. The village I grew up in is the kind of place that you love until the age of twelve, at which point you abruptly realise that going to the cinema requires an hour and a half on the bus and you have to ask your mum to drive you round to your friends’ houses. It’s the kind of place that you start to love again once you’ve moved away, I’m learning. My dad went to the same secondary school as me, and if you walk up the street with him on Hogmanay then he knows almost everyone by association if nothing else. When I come home for the holidays, old school friends meet up in the pubs and I bump into my former teachers at lunch times.

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I didn’t know the boy who died – I’ve said that already. But my newsfeed is full of him: he wore a bizarrely colourful suit to prom; we had the same history teacher; it looks like he was involved in quad biking. I do know the people posting their condolences. This is how it works in small towns: even when you don’t know someone, you sort of do. Almost everyone is the friend of a friend. Tonight, that means that the outpouring of grief online feels a lot closer to me than it really is. Maybe there’s a similar effect when an eighteen-year-old boy dies in a big city, but right now this feels like something that can only really happen in villages where the names on the war memorial are also the names on the front signage of the shops.

The movement of small town community onto social media is a strange phenomena to observe. There’s a Facebook group which has been specifically created to broadcast issues pertaining to the local community. On an average week, this is full of warnings about road closures and escaped sheep; the kind of issues which are so mundane as to become ludicrous when enshrined in text. When the local council threatened to close the public toilets, there was an online campaign, which successfully ensured their continued presence on the high street. The abolishment of the bakery section of our local Sainsbury’s was met with uproar on this group just last month, and the impending closure of the only bank in town is currently causing great upset.

Common opinion seems to be that social media renders communication less meaningful, causing people to separate even in their togetherness. Tonight, I’d probably disagree with them. Would all of these people have known that this boy died otherwise? Certainly not so quickly, and probably not all at once.

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Maybe there’s a certain falsity to this online mourning – it’s definitely a strange thing to behold. The idea of small town values seems like an oddly twee and old-fashioned way to explain the sense of community that is making itself known on Facebook right now. But this is not a case of supporting a stranger who happens to have the same postcode.