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Small-town chatter: online, anonymous and vicious

By A. G. Sulzberger

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LAST UPDATED: 05:07 a.m. HST, Sep 20, 2011



MOUNTAIN GROVE, Mo. » In the small towns nestled throughout the Ozarks, locals 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 venues 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 website 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 rumors of sexual escapades that dominate 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, the James’ said, but the consequences were real enough.

Friends and relatives stopped speaking to them. Baby-sitting clients no longer called. Trips to the grocery brought a crushing barrage of knowing glances. She wept constantly, struggled to get out of bed and even considered suicide. Now, the couple has resolved to move.

“I’ll never come back to this town again,” Jennifer James said in an interview at the diner. “I just want to get the hell away from here.”

In rural America, where an older and poorer 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 websites created as venues 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 forums in small communities, said Christian Sandvig, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Something about rural culture seems to make people want to have conversations in public,” said Sandvig, who recently studied the use of social media sites in rural areas.

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.

“We’re running the Gawker for every little town in America,” Tolles said.

Whereas online negativity seems to dissipate naturally in a large city, it often grates like steel wool in a town where reputations 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 website, where her divorce had been a topic of conversation, “Now it’s time to take the pain away.”

In Hyden, Ky. (population 365), the local forum had 107 visitors at the same time one afternoon this month. They encountered posts about the school system, a new restaurant and local arrests, as well as the news articles and political questions posted by Topix.

But more typical were the unsubstantiated posts that identified an employee at a dentist’s office as a home wrecker with herpes, accused a gas station attendant of being a drug dealer, and said a 13-year-old girl was “preggo by her mommy’s man.” Many allegations were followed with promises of retribution to whoever started the post.

“If names had been put on and tied to what has been said, there would have been one killing after another,” said Lonnie Hendrix, Hyden’s mayor.

Topix, based in Palo Alto, Calif., is owned in part by several major newspaper companies — Gannett, Tribune and McClatchy — but has independent editorial control. It was initially envisioned as a hyperlocal news aggregator with separate pages for every community in the country. But most of its growth was in small cities and towns, and local commenters wanted to shift the conversation to more traditional gossip.

Tolles acknowledged the biggest problem at the site is “keeping the conversation on the rails.” But he defended it on free-speech grounds. He said the comments are funny to read, make private gossip public, provide a platform for “people who have negative things to say” and are better for business.

At one point, he said, the company tried to remove all negative posts, but it stopped after discovering that commenters had stopped visiting the site. “This is small-town America,” he said. “The voices these guys are hearing are of their friends and neighbors.”

Tolles also said the site played a journalistic role, including providing a venue for whistle-blowing and candid discussion of local politics.

He noted that the Mountain Grove Forum, which had 3,700 visitors on a single day this month, had 1,200 posts containing the word “corruption,” though it was unclear how many of them were true. One resident here used the site to rail against local officials, helping build support for a petition-driven state audit of town government.

Topix said it receives 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 identity, 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 threats and racial slurs; another 3 percent — mostly “obvious libel,” Tolles said — are removed after people complain.

After a challenge from more than 30 state attorneys general, Topix stopped charging for the expedited removal of offensive comments — which Jack Conway, the attorney general for Kentucky, said “smacked of having to pay a fee to get your good name back.”

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,” James said, “rumors stay forever.”






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