Mountain Grove, MO Town Square
Before the days of the Internet, people in small town America gathered at the local diner for a diet of companionship, gossip and sustenance. Everybody knew everybody's business but in general the chatter would be friendly enough - idle chit-chat about their neighbors, the weather and politics. The party line telephone system offered neighbors another opportunity to listen, sometimes surreptitiously, to the latest gossip that was spreading around town, but again, it was all pretty innocent and low-key.
All that changed, however, as the Internet slowly made its way into rural America and small town residents started gravitating toward social media. Hiding behind anonymity the fangs came out, and there didn't even have to be a full moon or any moon at all for that matter. Day or night, what was once innocent gossip turned into vicious personal attacks. Most of it was libelous and all of it had a detrimental impact on the residents and their relationships with each other.
In a revealing article for the New York Times, A. G. Sulzberger describes how Mr. or Mrs. Anonymous can destroy the heretofore peace and tranquility of small towns where "rumors stay forever."
. . . 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.
Take the town of Mountain Grove, MO where residents have moved from gossiping around a table reserved for the "Old Farts Club" at Dee's Place to vicious rumors and personal attacks on Mountain Grove Forum, a social media Web site called Topix. A waitress, Phoebe Best, says the site has "provoked fights and caused divorces." The owner calls Topix a "cesspool of character assassination."
It's the cook's tale, however, that reveals just how sordid, ugly and vicious the gossip has become thanks to Mr. or Mrs. Anonymous. Shane James has every right in the world to be very angry and very tense. His wife, Jennifer, had been the target in a post titled "freak." Mr. or Mrs. Anonymous "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 moveThe abuse and bullying that bloggers and large city dwellers have become accustomed to, and unfortunately engage in, on the Internet seems to have a more profound impact on the residents of small towns where "everybody knows everybody's business." Sulzberger writes, ". . . it often grates like steel wool in a small town where insults are not easily forgotten."
"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."
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.”
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 by name 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.Topix's chief executive Chris Tolle acknowledged that the biggest problem they have is "keeping the conversation on the rails." Yet, while defending 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 [get this] 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.”Some friends, huh?
While Topix uses software to automatically screen out offensive content such as racial slurs, others such as "obvious libel" are removed only 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.Sulzberger's article brings up a few thoughts I've been mulling over for quite awhile. If people were required to use their real names, would they be less likely to go into attack mode? Would it tone down the rhetoric? Would they be more civil and courteous? Would they be less likely to lie? Would bullies be deterred from abusing and harassing others?
I've always felt that Mr. and Mrs. Anonymous were cowards, that if they couldn't hide behind "Anonymous" or use screen names, most might behave more like members of a civilized society. Of course, there are those who simply don't know how to "do," regardless of the type of social gathering. They are the folks who arrive at parties already drunk and pee in the fireplace or vomit in the punch bowl or assault another guest.