No one really knows when or how we’ll emerge from current lockdowns and return to normal life. (Or if they do, they’re not telling us.) However, it’s already clear that when we do, ‘normal’ is going to be very different from what it was just a few weeks ago.
For most part that new normal looks pretty grim, of course, although some optimists do forecast a few silver linings in terms of positive change in, say, attitudes towards environmental issues, recognition of a new worldwide interdependence and some profound changes in societies’ values.
However, whatever the global legacy of pandemic, at an individual level the new ‘normal’, and whether that turns out to be a step to the better or worse, may in many ways be a reflection of what’s been experienced during this period of emergency.
And here we may see a profound difference between city dwellers and their rural counterparts.
Day-to-day impacts of the pandemic obviously differ hugely between town and country.
Lockdown and social distancing is of course easier if you have access to open country as well as, probably, your own garden - a hundred-fold easier if you have children to educate, pacify and entertain.
And for a working-from-home office worker, the absence of a costly and time-consuming commute together with easy and instant online access to colleagues and customers may actually contribute to an improved working life. (Whatever the competition for kitchen table workspace.)
However, more profound and maybe longer lasting aspects of rural lockdown may be less obvious and literal. And may perhaps point to a broader change across us all when the all-clear finally sounds.
While those in the city have seen the decline - even disappearance - of their work, social and casual contact groups, many country dwellers have found their community to be more visible, broader and deeper than before coronavirus arrived.
At the most mundane level, no daily country walk these days fails to include a conversation or two with new acquaintances (albeit shouted across 4 or 5 metres - we take no chances out here).
More significantly, instant online communities have emerged. After 30 years in the same rural area I am now in daily online contact with over 40 local families previously unknown to me via our village WhatsApp volunteers group. That group in turn has spawned a network of neighbourhood Zoom events and informal meetings.
And many of the conversations here - online and off - involve more than incidental generalities. Enquiries after health are genuinely meant, not small talk. Focus is often on real needs and practical help. Shared concerns and shared humour are building real relationships, with these new communities taking on characteristics more usually found only within families or between close friends, focused on the individual and based to a significant degree on shared experiences.
Though definitively ‘local’, these new communities are not hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. With online communication central to their existence, reaching out to external sources - either to obtain information or express opinions - is so natural as to be automatic.
They do, though, seem fundamentally different from other online communities, with particularly high levels of engagement and association. A function, no doubt of ‘membership’ embracing both online and real world activity, but perhaps also due to individuals participating not on the basis of one particular interest or hobby, but with a ‘whole life’ (and often whole family life) perspective.
Casual observation of other rural locations suggests that our village is not alone, and that the emergence of such groups - let’s call them Local Online Communities (LOCs) - is a national phenomenon. As such, it may be one of the more significant social outcomes of our current crisis.
It may also be of significance to how businesses and brands behave in the future.
It can be difficult for a brand or business to combine a proposition of individuality with mass market appeal. In general, by choosing the virtues of one the consumer is foregoing the benefits of the other.
Yet in a social context, LOCs appear to offer just such a best of both worlds solution. Individuality is significant and is recognised as such, but at the same time as part of a community far bigger and of far greater consequence than close family and friends.
This best-of-both-worlds may be of particular value to community members due to its stark contrast with general life experience, where most of us only have any real significance to just a small group of family and friends, remaining largely anonymous and insignificant everywhere else - a reality that has only become more true and more obvious in days of globalisation.
It does seem possible that, by combining the size and significance of the community with connectivity and control through technology, LOCs may be triangulating the usual one-dimensional “mass” vs “individual” model to deliver apparently contradictory opposites side by side.
The potential appeal of an equivalent best-of-both-worlds proposition for businesses or brands is obvious.
Whether or not that can be engineered in practice remains to be seen. However, if it is ever thought to be desirable, business could do worse than study the emergence of Local Online Communities (or Local Online Brands?) in the villages of rural England.