The same Web sites created as places for candid talk about local news and politics are also hubs of unsubstantiated gossip, stirring widespread resentment in communities where ties run deep, memories run long and anonymity is something of a novel concept.
By way of explanation, Sulzberger quotes Professor Christian Sandvig of the University of Illinois, who has studied rural use of social media:
Something about rural culture seems to make people want to have conversations in public.
Using Internet sites such as those hosted by Topix, rural residents can have those conversations anonymously, thus defying the everyone-knows-everyone constraints long associated with small towns. Sulzberger colorfully observes that while "online negativity seems to dissipate naturally in a large city, it often grates like steel wool in a small town where insults are not easily forgotten." He again focuses on the rural-urban distinction with this comment:
Topix, a site lightly trafficked in cities, enjoys a dedicated and growing following across the Ozarks, Appalachia and much of the rural South, establishing an unexpected niche in communities of a few hundred or few thousand people — particularly in what Chris Tolles, Topix’s chief executive, calls “the feud states.”
Sulzberger goes on to use as an example of such a place Pikeville, Kentucky, population 6,361, once the stomping grounds of the Hatfields and McCoys. (The "feud" reference reminds me of Jim Webb's book on the Scots-Irish, Born Fighting, and Joe Bageant's characterization of white working-class rural folks as "warmongering.") Another Kentucky community, Hyden, has a population of under 500, but had 107 simultaneous users on the Hyden Topix forum one day this month.
Topix does not require commentators to identify themselves, and it even permits the same user to claim a different alias for each post. Topix does, however, make some effort to remove comments that are "obvious[ly]" defamatory, and it automatically screens out comments that feature racial slurs and such. Topix had previously required payment for expedited review of allegedly libelous content, but it ceased that practice after the attorneys general from 30 states challenged it. As a forum, Topix is immune from liability for defamation, but individual commentators in the forum could be liable, if identified. The company reported that it receives about one subpoena a day for the computer addresses of anonymous commentators. Not surprisingly, however, many who feel aggrieved by gossip on the service don't have the wherewithal to sue. They may thus find themselves stuck with whatever new reputation fellow townspeople have endowed them.