The Digitalization of Rural Communities: Media, Communication, Infrastructures

The investigation of current trends of digitalization in the field of media and communication predominantly focuses on urban centers and media spaces. This, among others, becomes apparent through buzzwords such as “smart cities” or “networked urban spaces”. In turn, “[t]he siginificance of mediatization in countryside settings is an underresearched topic” (cf. Jansson & Andersson 2012: 173). Furthermore, communication studies still very much focus on the digital in terms of media communication in a rather narrow sense: topics such as infrastructure, digital economy or socio-cultural aspects tend to be underrepresented.
However, in the face of growing societal challenges such as digital infrastructure development and rural deprivation, researching digitalization in general – and mediatization in particular – under rural conditions is a pressing need. This calls for a research approach that is strongly informed by international and interdisciplinary exchange. Thus, we aim at bringing together views from geography, sociology, information science as well as communication studies and combining them with a sensitivity for regional as well as national peculiarities. The focus of this meeting is directed towards the meanings, the potentials as well as the challenges of digital media, communication and infrastructures for rural communities. The papers presented contribute to this field of research through theoretical approaches, reports on empirical endeavors and applied research projects.


Thursday, September 20th  
13:00 – 13:30 Get together / lunch snack
13:30 – 14:00 Welcome and introduction of participants
14:00 – 15:30 Session 1: Mediatization of urban and rural spaces in times of digital media
• “Narrow views on the wide countryside – Communication studies, digitalization and the rural as blind spot of a “naturally urban” field” (Christian Schwarzenegger, University of Augsburg)
• “Deep mediatization and local publics” (Andreas Hepp, Andrea Grahl and Katharina Heitmann, University of Bremen)
15:30 – 16:00 Coffee break
16:00 – 17:30 Session 2: Local meaning – local knowledge: The appropriation of digital technologies
• “The multiple meanings of rural place in a digital age” (Magnus Andersson, Lund University)
• “Gathering together: Social capital, cultural capital and the value of cultural heritage in a digital age” (David Beel, Staffordshire University)
18:30 Dinner
Friday, September 21st  
09:30 – 11:00 Session 3: Infrastructures and beyond: Living digitally in rural communities
• “From pilot to pariah? How development trajectories of frontrunner rural broadband initiatives can impact geographies of discontent” (Koen Salemink, University of Groningen, and Fiona Ashmore, University of Lincoln)
• “Communicative networking in rural communities” (Matthias Berg, University of Bremen)
11:00 – 11:30 Coffee break
11:30 – 12:30 Wrap-up-discussion
12:30 Lunch snack and farewell


The multiple meanings of rural place in a digital age
Magnus Andersson, Lund University, SE

Based on an empirical study of the preconditions and possibilities of the Swedish countryside in a mediatized age (Andersson & Jansson 2012), the first part of this presentation focuses rural actors and the struggle of meaning in relation to rural places. One of the main findings that will be discussed was how both local policy-makers and local residents (organised in a village community) made use of
digitalization in their efforts to define and give meaning to a local place. As a media and cultural studies scholar with particular interest in place and space, the presentation is anchored in communication geography. This perspective – which can be described as a socioculturally framed intersection between geography and media studies – highlights how communication and space mutually influence each other. In the second part of the presentation, this perspective will be the point of departure for further elaboration on the relation between digital media and geography in times of intensified digitalization processes. In this regard (digital) media should be considered as threefold: as (1) infrastructure/materiality, (2) representations and (3) communicative practices.


Gathering together: social capital, cultural capital and the value of cultural heritage in a digital age
David Beel, Staffordshire University, GB

Cultural heritage is generally regarded as something of value – but it is valued in different ways by different communities. Here we explore the value of cultural heritage for rural Scottish communities and how it is generated through social and cultural capital. Using the idea of ‘gathering’, we consider the process of gathering historical archives, narratives and gathering places based on local knowledge. We draw upon a study of communities in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, where a well- established cultural heritage tradition has developed and is continuing to do so with the adoption of various digital technologies. The paper argues that cultural heritage offers a real sense of cultural value for participants and communities for which digitisation offers both threats and opportunities. The paper adds to our understanding of locally generated cultural capital and the meaning of cultural value.


Communicative networking in rural communities
Matthias Berg, University of Bremen, DE

This presentation introduces a research project focusing on the peculiarities of communicative networking in rural areas against the background of progressing mediatization and digitalization. The presentation is structured in four steps: Firstly, the theoretical approach is introduced, drawing on the village as a “communicative figuration” (Hepp et al. 2017: 24), with specific “actor constellations, frames of relevance and communicative practices” (ibid.: 27). In a second step, the methodological approach is presented which combines media ethnography (interviews, focus groups, participant observation) in a northern German community with the analysis of its local (print, electronic, digital) media structures. Thirdly, the results indicate that a feeling of local belonging can be regarded a core aspect of rural life. While the importance of digital media (e.g. mobile communication media, social media) on the one hand is deeply engrained in everyday processes of local community building, on the other hand issues of the poor digital infrastructure heavily resonate through the data material. Finally, the results are summarized and discussed along with their theoretical implications. It is shown that the mediatization of rural spaces should be understood as a fragile and contradictory process in which
digitalization is embraced and at the same time thwarted through inertia and a lack of infrastructure.


Deep mediatization and local publics
Andreas Hepp, Andrea Grahl, and Katharina Heitmann, University of Bremen, DE

Today, we can observe an increasing crisis of local publics in their tension between cities and their surrounding areas. With deep mediatization, our way of life becomes more mobile, social relationships become more and more translocal and we are confronted with very different ways of appropriating digital media. Local media such as regional newspapers are not able any more to address young people in a proper way. At the same time the city and its region remain relevant to them. In the light of such challenges, what should be the character of a local media application that addresses young people in the city and its surroundings?
Our research project “Tinder the City” combines empirical research with co-creative software development, taking Bremen and the area around as an example. We were able to identify the problems individuals and collectives have with local media and the existing local publics as well as the needs they have in this regard. On the basis of these findings we are in the process of developing an experimental local news app which shall help to counteract the identified challenges. Within our talk we will present our research results as well as our current app development.


From pilot to pariah? How development trajectories of frontrunner rural broadband initiatives can impact geographies of discontent
Koen Salemink, University of Groningen, NL, and Fiona Ashmore, University of Lincoln, GB

Both the Netherlands and Scotland have seen a rise in the number rural broadband initiatives over recent years. National market players were not willing or able to connect rural communities to futureproof broadband, and governments often lacked the political will to proactively solve the problem. As a response to market and government failure, groups of citizens formed initiatives to address the lack of broadband and started ventures to connect their communities themselves. The development of these citizens’ initiatives did not go unnoticed. Market players started a lobby to counter this development and keep in control of the market, and governments started to form policy to make sure they would at the table in case anything significant would develop. With these reactive responses by external parties, the rural broadband initiatives started to experience a loss of control over their venture (Salemink et al., 2017; Ashmore et al., 2017).
Building on previous work with the ‘pilot initiatives’ ECO Oostermoer Verbindt (Netherlands) and B4GEL (Scotland) we want to explore the wider societal and community impact of this loss of control. Previous research has shown that counter tactics by market players and governmental policies – even if they are well-meant – can lead to frustration among active citizens. This frustration can have further detrimental effects on citizen and community action and engagement, potentially turning engaging citizens into non-engaging citizens (see also Gieling, 2018; De Haan et al., 2017).
Using insights from two particularly rural case studies, this paper connects to the developing debate on geographies and politics of discontent. The urban-rural divide is a common denominator in this, as it plays a pivotal role in both the digital divide and in the geographies of discontent. The main question behind this paper therefore is: How does long-running civic action for improving rural broadband impact government-citizen relations, potentially fueling geographies and politics of discontent?


Narrow views on the wide countryside – Communication studies, digitalization and the rural as blind spot of a “naturally urban” field
Christian Schwarzenegger, University of Augsburg, DE
Matters of communication and questions of space and mobility are essentially related. Communication has ever been about connecting people across distances, traversing and bridging spaces, to reconfigure spaces and establish new realms of connectivity. It is thus surprising how little attention was given to the role of place, space and the question of “the where of communication ” in mainstream communication research.
My talk will establish three ways of negligence of space in regards to digitalization in our field: a) for digital communication it is allegedly no longer important (from) where people communicate, b) research questions about digitalization are explicitly or implicitly linked to urban developments and city-lifestyles, c) Metropolitan regions are a-priori taken as the somewhat natural habitat and urban people as the implicit default users related to the purported new normal of being permanently online and permanently connected; dwellers of rural areas are in contrast at best addressed as the other side of a digital divide. Departing from there I will use some of my own work that binds together symbolic and material dimensions of communicative spaces to illustrate how infrastructural affordances, means of mobility and mediated connectivities together play out to shape spatial experiences in mediatized worlds.