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Middle Age Bulge

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The Slow Shift

When I first came to Fort McMurray in 1996, information flow to families was pretty simple. You either relied on one of the two local radio stations, or the daily newspaper. You also probably kept a closer eye on the poster boards around town. It was a different time, and in many ways, a different age.

Flash forward to 2015. How families in Wood Buffalo get information has changed completely. I was reflecting on that reality as I scanned the social media universe, the day after I was interviewed by a reporter from Bloomberg News.

I got the sense he was in pursuit of the “Fort McMurray is sinking” story that seems to be dominating the January news cycle with oil prices having plummeted to south of $50 per barrel. I hope he wasn’t too disappointed as I talked about our active and dynamic community, and several amazing things that are happening, or have happened, that send a message that is counter-intuitive to what many might think. Despite the falling oil price – which ironically began dropping the moment we began the United Way campaign – the community donated more money than ever before, helping us to not only reach our goal, but also exceed it. The Fort McMurray International Airport still attracted 9.5 per cent more passengers in 2014, bringing it over the 1.3 million mark and surpassing the city of Regina in terms of volume. And hundreds of volunteers are fully engaged in plans to deliver the best Western Canada Summer Games ever.

Sitting at the computer, with an additional screen to widen my view, I am seeing a community that continues to evolve, respond, and adapt to the external forces that are beyond our control. Information flow happens in real-time these days, as mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, and neighbours have become the most powerful media forces. The viral effect is the holy grail of this plugged-in, social media age. Will that funny picture get shared? Does that video we made get watched? Are we influencing the conversation?

Being on Facebook and Twitter has slowly gone from being novelty to necessity. The two vehicles, primarily, have become our two essential lifelines to the world around us. Think about how you use them personally and professionally. Think about where you go when you want information about something happening at your school, in your neighbourhood, or on the other side of town.

When I was young - such a long time ago - we had the local newspaper (The Kamsack Times), the radio station from Yorkton (GX-94), and the library. That was our world. When I left home and began my working life, my thirst for information grew. So, I allowed myself to get suckered in by the traveling encyclopedia salesman. I’m embarrassed about it now, but at the time, I felt like I had the world at my fingertips with all the information I needed to help me be worldly and successful.

When I first arrived at the radio station in Fort McMurray, information came to us on a teletype. Someone at the Associated Press (I think that was our news service) was typing on a machine, presumably in Toronto, Montreal or another big city, and those words were printed out on a large roll of newsprint on our end. We would “rip and read” for our news, sports and weather casts and show prep. As that career came to an end, the Internet was growing at an exponential rate.

My head goes to the night that Lady Diana died. We were watching the news on television like everyone else, but we were also watching the early iterations of online news. Somewhere in my box of memories, I have a colour print out of the main story that appeared on CNN that night, thinking that I needed to preserve that moment. I was reading breaking news on my computer screen. How incredible was that?

The arrival of social media signaled another shift in terms of information, as power began to transition from publishers, media conglomerates and news outlets to people. A full decade later and we have all become, at one level or another, a media channel. Each of us has a network - in some cases, multiple networks - and we share information, constantly.

These changes have happened slowly and surely, but they are now pervasive. Yes, there are still people who chose the morning television shows, newspapers and radio stations to stay in touch. But, by and large, we rely on myriad websites, social media networks, email, texting and tweeting to make sense of the world.

I wonder where we’ll go from here? Think of how much has changed in 20 years. Think of how much will change 20 years from now.

Russell Thomas writes a regular blog at and can be followed on Twitter @rvthomas67.


Russell is a 19 year resident of Wood Buffalo, a community builder, facilitator, social media practitioner, actor, director and artist. He began his Middle Age Bulge blog as a way of capturing his journey to wellness. It has morphed into a daily journal about all aspects of life in the north. Russell works with The United Way of Fort McMurray and co-owns Birdsong Connections with his wife Heather.