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The Paper Precursor – The Online Communities we take for Granted Were Once a Breath of Fresh Air

hearthPicture this: You live on a farm in the countryside.

It’s 100 years ago today. You don’t have a television, phone, or radio, although the Jones’ next county over have a beautiful phonograph they play on special occasions.

Every day you see your husband, and your children, and the farm-hands – but other than that – connecting with another person is at best, something that happens every week or so when you go to church or a prayer-meeting.

There is work. There is drudgery. There is little change from day to day, week to week, year to year.

But then the paper comes.

You flip to the community notes column, and see that your letter has been printed! And there are half a dozen new patterns for fancy-work, not to mention a heap of interesting housekeeping tips.

And maybe Tom could pick up a job as an agent for Ford? And might those new tablets get the hens laying better? Oh, and there’s the next installment of that wonderful serialized novel you’ve been so enjoying.

That is just the beginning of the riches found in the local, regional and national papers that were commonplace in north America from the 1800s onward.

Once a month, community would be brought with the mail – a glimpse into the wider world, and connection to people you will never have the opportunity to meet in real life.
This is the power of community, and the rural country social column was one of the first ways it ever became bigger than the local level.

Imagine if they could have tweeted…

Snatching any Word of the Outside World

For most of its history, the vast majority of people in north America lived in rural environments and self-sufficiency was de rigeur. Farm work was hard, brutal and long, and there was little respite for farmers or their families.

In the years before accessible and affordable telephone service, letter mail was the only way to connect with family and friends living in different cities, states or provinces – and even mail was significantly more expensive than we take for granted now.

So enter the country newspaper. There were dozens, maybe hundreds, of these monthly publications geared towards reaching people on rural farms and in small towns.

They contained everything from serialized fiction, poetry and artwork, household tips, advertisements, and offers of employment- though not much in the way of reporting. These newspapers acted as intermediaries between letters (initially the only real option!) and magazines, which were out of reach for many families.

They were particularly attractive to (and so marketed towards) women. Men had their own publications, more traditional newspapers, and frankly, more opportunities to get out there and mingle – these options weren’t open to the typical farm wife – so papers like the Hearth and Home were for her.

There was one section that really made the country newspaper something special.

The Letters Columns

Letters columns came in all shapes and sizes.

There were “connections” style columns, where people could advertise for old school friends, or pen pals. Helpful hints columns were places women could trade remedies and housekeeping advice to save each-other labour. Of course there were advice columns, then as now, as well as different sections for gardening advice, recipes, and handicrafts.

Kind of makes you think of the blogosphere, doesn’t it?

Except of course – they all came contained within one document, and it only arrived once a month. I think, however, that the subscribers to these papers felt about them very much the way we feel about our favourite online communities.

Here an excerpt from the text of one woman’s letter to a column called “The Mutual Benefit Society” from the September issue of Hearth and Home, 1926:

“I am a new member of this delightful circle, and wish to get acquainted with other sisters. A good friend told me what a grand paper Hearth and Home is, and I subscribed at once – am only sorry I did not know of it before. Let us all pass on the good news of it at every opportunity, by telling others about our paper we help them, as well as our generous publishers and ourselves.”

Delightful circle. Other sisters. Our paper.

Reading these words – you get the feeling that the writer had learned there is someone out there who understood her, and what her life was like.

Like she wasn’t alone.

The March of Progress

As time passed and more options became available, people started listening to the radio, watching television and talking on the phone, not to mention having cars and planes to get from place to place more easily, and it became easier to build communities in many ways as opposed to just a few.

And then the internet happened.

The idea of a community that existed beyond your locality – a real community filled with people you really jive with became possible between and among denizens of hundreds of countries – became not just a dream, or something hinted at by a newspaper column – but a fact of life.

We have access to more people, saying more things in more ways than at any other time in human history.

Social columns in newspapers have never really gone away – Dear Abbey and the like continue unabated, although there are significantly fewer household hints now than there used to be, but the spirit of those that have fallen by the wayside continues online.

Huge and intimate communities has never been so easy to find and become a part of – but now – there are so many, and for so many different purposes that the problem isn’t being a part of one – it’s being overwhelmed by the options out there!

A Person is an Island in a Sea of Noise

Blogs, comment streams on news sites, forums, the social web.

There is a community for everything, and everybody, and if you don’t believe me, look up Rule 34. (Actually, no. If you don’t know what Rule 34 is, you don’t want to know. You’ve been warned.) More and more businesses exist solely online, and depend on these communities to provide traffic, relationships and customers.

It’s kind of hard to compete without community – but what does that mean for users of the internet?

It means they have a ton of options. Every permutation of online communities are literally at their fingertips.

So why would they choose yours? What makes you different, better, easier, more relevant?

Maybe it’s the relevancy of your subject matter, or maybe it’s the strength of your character – but it has to be something.

You can’t afford to skip the relationship building anymore – not if you want to be an oasis of value on the internet.

This means of course, that you can’t skip knowing exactly WHO your ideal customer is. 😉

We Still Want to be Understood

People want community. People want connection. They want to know that you are real, and your other readers are real and that they matter to you.

The isolation a country farm wife used to feel is echoed by individuals across the world who feel, despite huge opportunities for connection, that they are not seen or understood.

As people who are in the business of building online communities, we have the opportunity to do the same thing that the publishers of Hearth and Home used to do: find out who wants to hear from us, provide valuable, interesting content, the opportunity for our readers to engage not just with us – but with each other.

Online communities are places to learn, places to teach, places to share and places to grow. We get to make that happen, and to do so is both an extreme privilege, and an important responsibility because they can also be places to be vulnerable, to be at risk, to be lied to and to be harmed.

An online community is a way of reaching out into the darkness and finding that you are not alone – but you’ll never know if you’re in good company until it’s too late.
So take your responsibility seriously. Even when it feels like you’re trying to attract a crowd that just won’t come – chances are that someone has found you, and that you mean a great deal to them.

Don’t waste that!

What online communities are you a part of? If you could design an absolutely, picture-perfect one – what would it look like?

About Megan Dougherty

Megan Dougherty is an alumnus of Mirasee and is passionate about online education, small business and making a difference in the world. You can find out what she's up to and how side-hustles will take over the world at Follow her on Twitter at @MeganTwoCents.

33 thoughts on “The Paper Precursor – The Online Communities we take for Granted Were Once a Breath of Fresh Air

  1. Megan,

    I never thought of comparing online communities to the publications that used to come out back in the day but, the similarities are so true!

    I can relate that last part you mentioned about how “even when it feels like you’re trying to attract a crowd that just won’t come – chances are that someone has found you, and that you mean a great deal to them..” When I started my blog, I had 1 reader that would consistently comment. When I stopped posting for a couple months, I eventually got a comment from them asking me to start posting again.

    So, I did and now, my community is growing.

    It just goes to show that even though you might think that what you have to say doesn’t mean much, it might be mean a lot to them.

    I’m not really sure what my ideal community would look like. I think it depends on the particular interest that I’m talking about. For instance, the community around my writer’s blog would be way different if it was a knitting blog.

    • Hi Hermine,

      I agree to much – that first “note-related-to-you-by-blood-or-friendship” commenter is soooo important. 🙂

      I also think you’re right about needing different things from different communities – it’s hard to get everything you need from one place.


  2. Great article Megan, especially focusing on the community aspect of how and why we communicate. People are simply made for community, and we work hard to find it if it is not readily apparent.

    Online communities have taken off precisely because, in our ever-faster society, we get so caught up in what we are doing that we forget to stop and be present with real people. It is much easier to hook into an online community on our smartphones for a few moments while standing in a check-out line or getting to work on the T (yes, I’m from Boston; that would be our variation of the subway!).

    It takes more time to sit and chat with real people than it does to check up on the different FB groups of which we are a part, or follow your favorite blogger, whom you feel like you now know so well! (Don’t you feel that way???)

    That is the danger of online communities; we can’t get so caught up in them that we forget about the people who are face to face with us. On the plus side, however, if you have a particular interest not shared by your family and friends, it is a terrific way to meet other like-minded people and grow in that interest. So I guess we just need to think carefully about both communities, and link into them when most appropriate.

    • Hi Deborah,

      Thanks for the kind words – and oh goodness yes, I feel like I know my favourite bloggers personally! And don’t get me started on our Firepole Student groups! Visiting those spaces online feels like visiting family – without the spatting with my little sister. 😉

      It does start to get hard to find the time to see people in what my husband affectionately calls “meat-space.” I’ve found that, especially as I’ve gotten a bit older, and further from university/room-mates who throw giant parties – I really have to make more of an effort to schedule time to see folks. It’s worth it though – laughing with your computer screen is fun – laughing with a dinner party is wonderful. 🙂

  3. Things have really changed over time and nobody would love to be left behind. As things change, everyone looks for a way to fit into the new trends.

    Man is a social being; we want to be in company of others, learning from others and enjoying the opportunity of being heard as well. So online and offline communities afford us the privilege to associate with others and keep relationships going.

    • Hi Efoghor,

      You’re right – although isn’t it interesting how much interest and advice there is out there about “going your own way” and “being okay with being different?” It’s like a constant balancing match between fitting in and being independant..

  4. Hi Megan,
    Really liked this post – the description of the lonely farmwife receiving news from the outside almost made me long for this more uncomplicated world. Nostalgia discounts the hardships, I know, but the sense of community seemed to be genuine, and, as you say, there was not so much to choose from… The abundance of choice is a blessing and a curse – it seems so much harder to find a community one feels ‘at home’ with. I haven’t found my ideal community yet. Maybe I should start one myself? It would have a kitchen table feel, and definitely include talking about what makes life worthwhile.

    • Thanks Iris!

      I often wish to go back in time a bit – until I remember how much I truly appreciate indoor plumbing and doctors who wash their hands! 😉

      Starting a community is always an option – and a fun one! I agree with you about “kitchen table” feel – there’s something about kitchens that makes conversation just sparkle…

  5. I love how this focuses on community and the primal need we all have to feel connected, to feel that we matter, that other people care enough to maintain relations with us.

    I’m in a number of groups on Facebook, and I recently left one because there was absolutely no engagement. Other group members barely responded to posts and conversation starters, and it just felt like a great big echo chamber.

    Er, no thanks.

    My ideal community would be centred around a love for books; blood-pumping music (think hip-hop and salsa); and philosophical riffs on the soul, creativity, and the personal evolution of enlightened minds/beings.

    My tribe would be open to sharing and discussing their experiences in ways that uncovered eureka insights for them and taught the rest of us something at the same time.

    It’d be a safe haven to be yourself, celebrate your quirks, and challenge yourself to outgrow your limitations.

    We’d have monthly meetups for those in the same state, and a yearly annual bash for EVERY member everywhere to gather and dance the night away to booming beats.

    Thanks for having me go through this exercise, Megan; now I’m interested in making it my reality! 😀

    • Oh a dead group is brutal! I’ve found that pretty frequently on LinkedIn – I think it varies by person.

      Your community sounds amazing! You should make it a reality – who doesn’t need more good books, blood-stirring music and philosophical riffs on the soul? (love that phrasing, BTW!)

  6. Hello,

    I too never thought about how the community section of the newspaper 100 years ago connected people. Good call!

    I’m in a couple of Facebook groups, but I haven’t participated much for various reasons such as:

    1) The one group doesn’t have much participation.

    2) One group is all about sharing quotes. I didn’t even join the group, I was added. Side note: this is a drawback to Facebook. Anyone can add you. Then again, maybe I need to adjust my settings.

    3) I beginning to think I’ve outgrown the one group.

    I’m in LinkedIn Groups and try to spend at least 15 minutes a week adding to the discussions.

    I comment, obviously, on blog posts. But I haven’t been a part of a forum in a while.

    Quora is another community I joined, but I haven’t spent much time on the site.

    If I could design an absolutely, picture-perfect community it would be one that:

    1) Met at a regular time each week to discuss (fill in the blank). Scheduling a meeting is a great way to build consistency.

    2) Allowed no spamming.

    3) Had a separate area for self-promotion, and you would have to be asked if you wanted to receive emails about (fill in the blank) from members.

    4) Met once a month in-person for those who live in the state/area. If you’re in the area on business or vacation, you could meet the group.

    5) Offered constructive feedback that is actually helpful.

    I think this is it, for now. 😉

    • Sounds like a good list! Especially the separate area for self promotion – if you make it clear where that’s cool – you’ll eliminate so much of the spam.

      I joined Quora not to long ago too – it’s on my list to explore further… I’m concerned I just really like the name. 🙂

  7. Great question, and great blog post. I really struggle with this because no matter how hard I try, I can’t visualize the people and community at the other end of the computer when I’m sitting at it – I feel drained, bored, dead inside. I love meeting and talking with people face-to-face, it energizes and inspires me, and I know I energize and inspire other people in person, I feel it every time I have a conversation with a customer – its fun, positive, and usually successful! But my online presence reeks of my boredom and inability to connect through a computer. Oh well, online is the future, so I’d better figure it out! Thanks for the post Danny, it’s given me food for thought.

    • Hi Kate,

      That’s really interesting – and you know – I really used to feel that way too – the difference for me came when I started being a “creator” of the community space – when it was my job to nurture a group and make sure that “dead lifeless” feeling didn’t happen.

      There is, of course, absolutely NOTHING wrong with good old-fashioned Face to Face. For some folks I think they are more energizing than draining – and vice versa. It’s pretty cool we have the option, though…

  8. Megan,

    Great post. I just re-worded my website to stress the idea of a community. That’s your doing, lady!

    This feels good to me. I want to create something that is unique to my community. I want to help them, for free if necessary!

    • Hey Dan,

      Cool! That’s awesome about your site.

      And helping for free – that’s the best place (in my opinion) to build the basis for an audience that will be happy to pay for value down the line. 🙂 Not to mention the totally awesome warm fuzzies you get when you make a bit of a difference for someone.

  9. I’ve left a few communities that attract self-promoters. They really ruin a lot of on-line communities.

    The small town paper communities began to die when criminals discovered they could target vicitms by following the columns and learning who was sick or traveling or attending a funeral or on a honeymoon. Something similar may be happening in the new “communities.”

    Exploring ways to keep that from happening to ensure true group interests is worthwhile.

    • Oh wow – I’d never thought of that, Judy – really?

      I knew it was an issue with Foursquare and a few other services – but I wouldn’t have imagined it went back to small-town columns… Crazy.

      You’re right about the self-promoting – it has to be controlled by someone or it can get out of hand.

      • I have a thought regarding the “communities” online which push detrimental stuff, such as marketing sites that offer false data and cost a batch of money. Folks will soon find out they don’t work. And as I’ve been told for years, when people lose they complain (and the reverse, when they win they say nothing!) Thus, such “communities” will naturally go out of business. I don’t wish to have anyone other than consumers control them. Now if it’s a matter of criminality, then we already have the means in place to stop that!

  10. I think online community and online business in mutual relation that can be separated. Creating vibrant and resilient communities is a mammoth task and businesses have a critical role in helping communities to prosper.

  11. Megan,
    Great post…I wonder what the people in the Hearth and Home days would’ve said if someone told them that one day we’d all be chatting with hundreds or thousands of people each and every day without leaving our desks. Would they think that was a curse or a blessing…?

    Speaking of that, Girl, you’re becoming the Fredda Krueger of the Firepole Empire! You’re everywhere I look! Do you sleep?

    As for Rule 34, it’s the first thing I learned after eagerly checking my analytics the first time for keywords people used to find my topic. C’mon, really? They need to go back to a big field to till all day and a weekly magazine. 😉

    • Thanks Michelle!

      Oh, I know! When I read or watch a period piece I always imagine what they’d think – or how to possibly explain.

      I read a cute little meme the other day:

      Q: “What would be the hardest thing to explain to someone who’d come forward in time from the fifties?”

      A: “I have a small box in my pocket capable of accessing the entirety of human knowledge and experience, and I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.”

      Oh I sleep – after working with Danny for 3 years, you get to be pretty good at squeezing a lot into a day. Hmm…Fredda Krueger… close – but I think I’ll stay on the hunt for an alter-ego. 🙂

      It’s almost always better not to know with Rule 34… *shudder*

      Have a great day!

  12. I just wrote about building a community the other day.

    It’s amazing what you can do when you have a community.

    One community that I am a part of is a G+ community. We met online and we work together to critique each others work. It helps us hone our skills as we progress.

    Also, I have a group of gamer friends who I used to play WOW with. We still hang out together, but much less frequently.

    A picture perfect community would be people just above me in terms of their online progress, so I could learn from them.

  13. Members of online communities are transient. Many stick around only until they achieve a certain goal. Others lose interest and find new hangouts. Thus, without a regular influx of new members, communities die out.

  14. At the same time, the fact that so much of our community is online brings with it certain challenges. Communicating primarily online can make it difficult to recognize each other’s humanity. Online we don’t have the same vocal and physical cues to tell us what another person means by his or her comments, so it’s easier for misunderstandings to develop. The instantaneous and impersonal nature of online communication also makes it much easier for these misunderstandings to escalate, or for civil arguments to turn into bitter fights. Like many online communities, our comment and forum threads all too often become places for name calling and even threats, rather than honest dialogue based on mutual respect. Between the small but vocal number of abusive participants (often called “trolls”) who hurl threats and insults, and the overheated rhetoric of some ordinarily friendly and reasonable people, our online environment is in danger of turning toxic. Fortunately, our secular values of reason and compassion give us tools to rise above the lowest common denominator of online communication.

  15. That thought provoking question you asked at the end, ” If you could design an absolutely, picture-perfect one [online community] – what would it look like?”

    That’s it!

    Once one answers that they can make it happen. Until now I have been thinking in terms of defining my perfect client which is actually very difficult to do since the types of people I like to associate with and connect with can be very eclectic. So I have never been able to define a ‘perfect client’ that clicked. But a picture perfect community… that’s much simpler to define.

    The ‘ideal community’ idea, rather than the ‘ideal client’ idea, sounds like an innovative way to approach marketing.

    It would really be interesting to hear your feedback Megan- and anyone elses. Say what you really think.

    • Hi Aaron,,

      I think there’s something to that – but I would consider it a starting point in terms of identifying your ideal customer or customers – not the goal. Remember that communities are composed of individual people – and there is no really effective way to effectively message “everyone.”

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