THBT: Social Media in Eastern N.C.

May 12th, 2008; 11:20 pm by Ryan Thornburg

Rocky Mount, split by a railroad line between the white world of Nash County and the black world of Edgecomb County, was the first stop on this year’s Tar Heel Bus Tour. For me, it was a fitting first stop because it was one of the first towns in “the real North Carolina” to which I was introduced as an undergrad.

The stop reminded me that, even in an era of international, on-demand connections, so much — if not most — of what we know about the world comes from the people we call friends.

Social media is not a new concept.

It was a college friend who introduced me to Rocky Mount, when he kindly took me to his hometown and patiently stopped along some road so I could feel real cotton — REAL COTTON! — that was growing in a field there. And it was a network of friends that was the subject of our first stop, Dudley’s Beauty Salon where we met owner Cassandra Williams and heard about her work with a group that trains black cosmetologists to speak with their hair clients about breast health and mammography.

Black women are much more likely than white women to die of breast cancer, perhaps because they are less likely to seek medical care in early stages of the disease. The Breaking Free project aims at increasing early breast cancer detection by raising awareness through beauty salons.

Why? Because even if black women were the publishers and editors of newspapers in North Carolina, we know that people are most likely to take action on information if that information comes directly from someone that looks like them. At least this is true in political fundraising, and it is true in efforts to get young people to vote.

“That stylist is their friend, their confidant,” said Debra Long, the executive director of Crossworks, the parent organization of Breaking Free.

This is social media sans Internet.

And it is born of necessity. After all, as Long pointed out, the local paper hadn’t responded to her invitation to come write a story about our visit. And, frankly, if I were the editor of the Rocky Mount Telegraph, I wouldn’t have sent a reporter either. Because for most of my readers — probably most of whom are white — the story has no relevance.

Social media is inherently niche media.

Issues of interest to your community not being addressed in the mainstream media? Turn elsewhere. The issues of Jet, Ebony and Essence magazine lying about the salon reminded me of just how different white and black media consumption is. We read different magazines. We watch different television shows.

This trend for niche communities to turn to niche publications isn’t just a hypomedia (the opposite of “hypermedia,” right?… at least that what Paul Jones says.) trend. Some of the first groups that used the Internet to spread news and information were homosexuals and hackers. (Oh, and pedophiles, but Time magazine already covered that.)

So, LESSON ONE from the Tar Heel Bus Tour: Journalists who want to practice some sort of social media or citizen journalism have something to learn from efforts like Breaking Free:

  1. Be niche
  2. Have incentives for follow-up
  3. Train evangelists by arming them with “conversation starters”

That was the first chapter of our day and of our tour. Our final stop of the day at Tryon Palace in New Bern ended with Bland Simpson singing the opening song from his musical King Mackerel and the Blues Are Running : “Who’s got the latest information? Coast guard or charter boat cruise? Could be the kid down at the filling station, saying ‘Buddy have you heard the news?’”

Yup. Out here in the places where North Carolina got its start it seems like social media has quite a jump on the Internet.

Tomorrow: Public-private partnerships and the sound of freedom.

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One Response to “THBT: Social Media in Eastern N.C.”

  1. Keith Amos, MD Says:

    Ryan:

    Great description of our first day with a connection to journalism and its effect on society.

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