In Small Towns, Gossip Moves to the Web, and Turns Vicious
By A. G. Sulzberger, NY Times, September 19, 2011
MOUNTAIN GROVE, Mo.—In the small towns nestled throughout the Ozarks, people like to say that everybody knows everybody’s business—and if they do not, they feel free to offer an educated guess.
One of the established places here for trading the gossip of the day is Dee’s Place, a country diner where a dozen longtime residents gather each morning around a table permanently reserved with a members-only sign for the “Old Farts Club,” as they call themselves, to talk about weather, politics and, of course, their neighbors.
But of late, more people in this hardscrabble town of 5,000 have shifted from sharing the latest news and rumors over eggs and coffee to the Mountain Grove Forum on a social media Web site called Topix, where they write and read startlingly negative posts, all cloaked in anonymity, about one another.
And in Dee’s Place, people are not happy. A waitress, Pheobe Best, said that the site had provoked fights and caused divorces. The diner’s owner, Jim Deverell, called Topix a “cesspool of character assassination.” And hearing the conversation, Shane James, the cook, wandered out of the kitchen tense with anger.
His wife, Jennifer, had been the target in a post titled “freak,” he said, which described the mother of two as, among other things, “a methed-out, doped-out whore with AIDS.” Not a word was true, Mr. and Ms. James said, but the consequences were real enough.
Friends and relatives stopped speaking to them. Trips to the grocery store brought a crushing barrage of knowing glances. She wept constantly and even considered suicide. Now, the couple has resolved to move.
"I’ll never come back to this town again," Ms. James said in an interview at the diner. "I just want to get the hell away from here."
In rural America, where an older, poorer and more remote population has lagged the rest of the country in embracing the Internet, the growing use of social media is raising familiar concerns about bullying and privacy. But in small towns there are complications.
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.
A generation ago, even after technology had advanced, many rural residents clung to the party line telephone systems that allowed neighbors to listen in on one another’s conversations. Now they are gravitating toward open community forums online, said Christian Sandvig, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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.” One of the most heavily trafficked forums, he noted, is Pikeville, Ky., once the staging ground for the Hatfield and McCoy rivalry.
Whereas 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.
The forums have provoked censure by local governments, a number of lawsuits and, in one case, criticism by relatives after a woman in Austin, Ind., killed herself and her three children this year. Hours earlier she wrote on the Web site where her divorce had been a topic of conversation, “Now it’s time to take the pain away.”
Topix said it received about 125,000 posts on any given day in forums for about 5,000 cities and towns. Unlike sites like Facebook, which requires users to give their real name, Topix users can pick different names for each post and are identified only by geography. About 9 percent are automatically screened out by software, based on offensive content like racial slurs; another 3 percent—mostly threats and “obvious libel,” Mr. Tolles said—are removed after people complain.
Despite the screening efforts, the site is full of posts that seem to cross lines. Topix, as an Internet forum, is immune from libel suits under federal law, but those who post could be sued, if they are found.
The company receives about one subpoena a day for the computer addresses of anonymous commenters as part of law enforcement investigations or civil suits, some of which have resulted in cash verdicts or settlements.
But at Dee’s Place, Jennifer James said she did not have enough money to pursue a lawsuit. And even if she did, she said, it would not help.
"In a small town," Ms. James said, "rumors stay forever."