William Gibson, the science fiction writer, once famously said, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.” No place has been living the Internet longer than Blacksburg, a town of 50,000 in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. And that makes it a bellwether for the future of social and mobile media. In 1996, 62% of residents were online when the U.S. was at 8%. Even senior citizens were wired. It took the rest of the U.S. another 10 years to reach that level. Blacksburg had the 1st wired school system, 1st library with free Internet access, 1st online ordering of groceries, 1st online real estate listings and 1st residential broadband.
It’s hard to believe that at the time the largest Internet service provider was “Internet in a box,” the browser used by most people was Mosaic, and access was by modem on a dial-up line. I discovered that E-mail was going to explode because it had become part of everyday human connections. Sounds obvious now, but back then everyone was talking about television with 500 channels.
I like to return to Blacksburg every five or so years, stay for a week, and chat with as many people as I can to see what is happening now. My approach is something like the “Up Series,” the series of documentary film that has followed the lives of 14 British children every 7 years since 1964, when they were 7 years old. In this case, I’ve been studying and photographing one special community every 5 or so years.
When I was last there in 2010, Twitter and Foursquare were spreading quickly among Blacksburg’s opinion leaders. Again, the behaviors that were spreading were driven by basic human values, like locating friends who might be available to watch your kids. I called it “the return of the front porch,” where technology was going to strengthen local connections, not just bring distant people closer.
And I’ll be returning again in the next few months for another in-depth ethnographic study of the social influencers in Blacksburg. Since 2010, smartphone use has exploded, and I have to wonder what this tightly connected community is up to now. And again I’ll be working with Andrea Kavanaugh, a professor at Virginia Tech, who I first met in 1996 and with whom I continue to work.
Steve Jobs said Apple didn’t need market research because “Customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.” He never visited Blacksburg. If you want a peak at the future, come to SxSW this coming March where I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned this time.