Plugging In: Appalachia Online
By Niki King
I’ve been thinking a lot about social media lately. It’s a residual warm and cozy feeling leftover from the Appalachian Studies Association conference in Indiana, Pa., this March.
Beth Newberry and I hosted a panel about online Appalachia, where we invited several folks whose work we admire to talk about how they’re using the web and social media to extend and enrich conversation, build community and encourage social action in the region.
Writer and activist Jason Howard presented Still, the online literary journal of the mountain south that he helped found and edits. Benji Burrell, webmaster for ilovemountains.org, talked about using tools like Google Earth to advocate against mountain-top removal mining. Kara Rogers Thomas brought us up to speed on www.appindie.org, the citizen journalism newspaper in Frostburg, Md., where she is an editor and co-founder.
Our audience was small, but the conversation rich. Memorably, we were joined by Mark Kidd who works at Appalshop, the legendary media arts institute in Whitesburg, Ky.; Roxy Todd, who’s coordinating Traveling 219: The Seneca Trail, a project to revisit the Depression Era Federal Writers’ Project in West Virginia and Rosann Kent editor of the Georgia Appalachian Studies Center blog.
At another panel, I heard about Berea College posting locally drawn maps online to explore the psychology of place and Indiana University faculty using virtual world platforms to re-create history sites that have been lost in the region.
We also tweeted up with Marc Bentley, an Appalachian Studies student, whose blog we enjoy, particularly when he recently facilitated dialogue around the age-old question “What is Appalachia, anyway?”
While all our online efforts run the gamut and are as different as night day, we face some of the same challenges, like finding funding, generating enough content, keeping people engaged and growing audiences. It was invigorating to hear others’ approaches and what’s working for them.
While we talked with people about building community online, it occurred to me then we were forming a community of our own, then and there. Each conversation, handshake and nice-to-meet-you encounter ended with the question, “how can we collaborate?” I hope we find innovative, enterprising ways to answer that question, to the benefit of us all.
What I’ve seen of our region’s online presence makes me proud. Lots of smart people are finding ways to use new media to solve problems and expand the Appalachian experience. I think that’s important, especially for a region that has a troubled history with its portrayal in traditional, corporate-owned broadcast media, which we know often only targets the most salacious aspects of our area (like MTV’s new reality series Buck Wild) or picks a single issue to focus on, like drug abuse or poverty (think ABC’s 20/20 show A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains).
So many of us are using the internet to represent ourselves and in doing so, create our own regional identity. For example, Elaine McMillion’s interactive documentary Hollow will help McDowell County, W.Va., residents tell their own stories online. The project, by design, is oriented toward engaging and connecting participants in the region with viewers around the world.
To me, these kinds of connections create what Douglas Reichert Powell has described as “critical regionalism.” In his book, Critical Regionalism: Connecting Politics and Culture in the American Landscape (2007) he argues regions are not static places, bounded by geography or time. They are connected to the larger political, social and cultural forces within the world at large, and to make those connections in writing and imagery is to construct region critically.
“Even when regional definitions are used to isolate, idolize, or stigmatize a network of places, as is often the case with Appalachia, these demarcations are always in relation to broader patterns of history, politics and culture,” writes Powell.
From the outset, we at The HillVille wanted to deepen understanding of our region and connect with others called to do the same. New media allows us to do that with frequency, efficiency and urgency. We’re the first generation that really gets to experience our region as this new medium evolves and that’s an exciting thing to be apart of.
I just wanted to thank everyone for the connections we’ve made so far, online and in person. I am so inspired by their implicit possibilities.