Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Internet anonymity undoes rural lack of anonymity, taking gossip to new "heights"

A front-page story in today's New York Times features a range of interesting assertions about rural society, rural culture, and rural difference. The story is "In Small Towns, Gossip moves to the Web, and Turns Vicious." The dateline is Mountain Grove, Missouri, population 4,544, in the Missouri Ozarks, but journalist A.G. Sulzberger quotes academics generalizing about rural places, particularly rural areas of the the South and Appalachia. Here's an excerpt about the "complications" arising from the growing use of social media in rural America, where the population is "older, poorer and more remote" and has typically "lagged the rest of the country in embracing the Internet":

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.


Tanu Mehta said...
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JWHS said...

So what does this actually say about rural anonymity? In some veins we tend to praise the close-knit communities, but it seems like people will escape them where they can. It seems sad, but there might not be anything special about rural towns when it comes to that "community" aspect if it is undercut when a viable option is presented.

Azar said...

I have a somewhat topical anecdote. I remember when my co-worker at the Daily Bruin Sports Section wrote a sarcastic and light-hearted "hit piece" on the state of Wyoming prior to UCLA's football game with them. I wish I had the link, but I can't seem to find it. It was basically talking about how instead of playing a big market team in our bowl game, we had to settle on playing a team that was 100 years behind civilization. He also insulted the well-known towns in Wyoming.

Little did he know that he would be devoured on the internet message boards, e-mailed with thousands of complaints and threats, and featured on the Wyoming Evening News. He ticked of the wrong people and the veil of anonymity allowed them to take no bounds in their responses. It's not a reaction that he expected and it completely changed him as a writer- he was much more tame and careful from that point.

Friend of Matthew said...

Unfortunately, Topix harm has not been isolated to rural communities. This is because, while in rural communities, people actually USE Topix for local discussion and gossip, in other places people do not know enough about Topix dual face to distinguish between legitimate news pulled from media and fabricated stories about people. As a powerful internet news aggregator, Topix posts whether true or completely made up, can deliver top level search results on a local person's name even in big cities and their suburbs. Scores of people have lost jobs or income, been shunned from their communities, have lost jobs, volunteer positions and have reported being stalked in some way because of fake or misleading Topix posts.

Topix removal of abusive posts has been a welcome first step, but the site remains heavily misused and management has done nothing to curb abuse from happening in the first place.

Anonymous said...

There is a culture of never being accepted as a "local" if you were not born in one, despite living years there, and hence are an easy target for unfounded rumours that become more unreal. Locals are so gullible to gossip. It is a classic form of passive aggression. Small towns breed small minds. If you don't fit the mould then you are easily perceived as a threat.

lexorjoy31 said...
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