Social networking with the Amish

A man using a traditional Amish phone box

A man using a traditional Amish phone box

My second day in Ohio’s Amish country, and first day working with the Budget, was characterised not only by meeting the newspaper’s enthusiastic and extremely dedicated staff (an impressive number of them have been with the paper more than two decades, and in the case of their book keeper, for over thirty years), but also by my first meeting with Amish men and women. I ate lunch in a diner served by a young Amish girl – once married, Amish women are no longer allowed to work – and met several men who worked as tour guides at the Amish and Menonite Heritage Centre. Their tour gave me a sound grounding in the basic history of these intertwined communities, but it was while talking to one of these men I came across something I thought would be of particular interest to new media types, because what I discovered was a form of social networking being used by the Amish.

The Amish and Mennonite Conference Line was set up in 2004 in Illinois as a phone line providing  Amish news bulletins 24 hours a day, except for Sundays, when the conference line is suspended so there are no distractions from church. Now the most obvious question that springs to mind here might be: the Amish have phones? But according to Keith (The Budget’s publisher) a lot of Amish, particularly those belonging to the New Order (less conservative), will have mobile or cell phones, while others will have shared phones in their homes or farms, complete with voice mail services, enabling callers to reach the correct family member. (For an interesting account of the historical Amish use of telephones, see here.)

The conference line operates in English and German on alternate days, and a newscaster will read bulletins  with news telephoned in by communities across the US, acting as an audio version of the national pages of the Budget. But if you can get all this in the Budget, why is the service becoming increasingly popular among the Amish? I put this to an Amish gentleman I interviewed who said he used the service almost every day, and that as many as 700-800 people were also using it on a regular basis. His answer relates back to every person who has ever been questioned about why they use the internet instead of picking up a paper.

“It’s quicker than the newspaper. Things that happened today I can find out about on the conference line that evening, but with the paper I would find out maybe tomorrow, or later in the week.”

But as well as the news bulletins, the line also hosts “conferences” on different topics. The line operates a programme of upcoming conferences, and anyone who has subscribed to a conference ID or pin number (almost like a Twitter username…) can speak on the line, giving their opinion or detailing their relevant experience.

Speaking about the different conference topics, the same Amish gentleman said:

“The controller tells you the information about what’s coming up [in the conferences], so maybe they have a group of farmers who graze their livestock and cows, and they’ll discuss different grazing patterns. Or some talk about organic farming, or raising animals or health foods.

“I personally like hearing about genealogy and Europe. Sometimes people talk about their trips to places where our ancestors came from, and I like the history part of that. ”

Now it may be that I’ve been spending far too long in the Twitterverse or the blogosphere, but I couldn’t help drawing parallels between this and the way social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook are used by the rest of society – as mediums to communicate with others on matters of shared common interest, going above and beyond that provided by traditional media, no matter where in the world they are. The similarities only seemed to deepen when my genealogy enthusiast said:

“I found out about it a year or so after it started, and I was interested in it at first, but it took about another year before I started to talk on it myself. Now I know probably 100 people on there that I just know by their voice – I’ve never even met them before.”

Of the 226 people on my Twitter feed, I doubt I’ve met more than a quarter in real life. But those who tweet still feel a keen sense of connection with the people who they follow, and their followers, and that connection – one that is more immediate and personal than that found through a newspaper – seemed to be important to the Amish using the conference line too.

And just like good twitter etiquette, there are rules for the conference line too, although some perhaps wouldn’t go down so well in our own social networking circles. Women are allowed to listen in to the conference conversations, but are not supposed to participate. Anyone talking about religion must identify themselves, and “sheep stealing” – trying to encourage listeners to switch their allegiance from one church to the other – is banned. But overall the service is growing in popularity, and has even taken out adverts in the Budget. So if you thought the tweeting generation were wildly advanced then think again, because the Amish are playing that game too – albeit at a slightly slower pace.

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~ by jessicabest87 on June 30, 2009.

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