Sandy Hook

Sandy Hook

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Small Town Gossip Moves from the Diner to the Web and Turns Vicious

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 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."
The 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."
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.  


  1. I had never heard of Topix until I recently moved to a small town of maybe 2,000 people, and I only found it through a search about an old building here. It amazes me the way they talk and it seems they really do not know better. The thing about using real names is that personally I would be afraid of some sort of retribution for saying the "wrong" thing; that being anything that is different from the local way of seeing things.

  2. @Towanda: That's a good point but being "anonymous" didn't seem to protect the victims here, just the abusers.

  3. Actually, not anonymous. Collin Hinds here. Wonderful post, Leslie. I honestly believe anonymity is too great a temptation to behave badly for most. For those of us who live in large urban areas we could never imagine what it's like in a small town, where everybody knows everyone.

  4. The people who believe these anonymous accusations are as bad (and as stupid) as those that make them.

  5. @Collin: And where the ramifications can be so much more devastating. Imagine living in a small community where suddenly people you've know all your life look the other way when they see you. The psychological impact can be enormous.

    @Jerry: I'm not sure I agree with you here - maybe a little bit for the people who make such accusations. I think it's important to remember that most rural people aren't very savvy when it comes to the Internet and social media sights. It's not that they are stupid or even necessarily bad - just ignorant. And a lot of it is just bad behavior, or bad manners, if you will. And as far as I'm concerned, trolls are cut out of the same piece of cloth.

  6. "Of course, there are those who simply don't know how to 'do,' regardless of the type of social gathering."

    Which makes the kind, gracious, and intelligent readers and commenters all the more precious in our world. You're one of those and I'm so pleased to call you friend. We shall dedicate ourselves to modeling the behavior we seek and deleting the behavior we abhor.

  7. Small town, big city, this is people being people — and that doesn't always mean making nice, playing fair or being truthful. Anonymity is all some people need to start liberating their ugly side.

    Jerry is right about the equivalent stupidity of purveyors and consumers of slime. Like water, they've found their own level through Topix and deserve each other.

  8. @Nance: Thanks, Luv, and yes we will.

    S.W.: It may be "people being people" at Mike's Biker Bar but I sure as hell don't want it in my home. Not only that, I doubt if a lot of the people acting like slime behind the cloak of anonymity would act like this in public - which is sort of my whole point. Plus, this kind of thing isn't limited to sites like Topix by any means. Having to use real names doesn't curtail anyone's free speech but it might encourage people not to slander or abuse others - or at least make them think twice about what they say and how they say it.

  9. ". . .I doubt if a lot of the people acting like slime behind the cloak of anonymity would act like this in public - which is sort of my whole point."

    Absolutely right. And there would be a difference if everyone were to use his/her own name, although a few would still act ugly.

  10. gosh, where do I begin! The gossip you have highlighted hear sounds to me like holier than thou types damning and accusing neighbors of acts of sin and immoral behavior...Hmmmm, what does that point to?? Some of our neighbors who profess to be "without sin" are the most hateful and judgmental of all!! These sites are very bad for small communities. I live in one and can just imagine how it would affect me personally if I was the subject of a libelous attack. I think it would kill me. You see how Tom's accusations affected me!

  11. All of these posts revolve around surrendering anonymity to protect good people from scurrilous posts. That sounds reasonable and just.

    But there is another side of anonymity on the net and that is getting messages of misconduct and abuse out where they can receive attention and often attract others who have experienced similar behavior from the same source. This kind of anonymity stops, at least from most sources, attempts to retaliate against those who complain.

    "Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease"

  12. @SW: Too true. There's always a bully on every schoolyard - but using real names would certainly deter a great deal of it.

    @Sue: There's a great deal of truth to what you say about the "holier than thou" element but I think they are only one part of the equation.

  13. @advice: " This kind of anonymity stops...attempts to retaliate against those who complain."

    I wish that were true but I don't think it is. In fact, when dealing with these kinds of swine, any attempts to "complain," "defend" or fight back just results in the escalation of abuse. As I said above, being "anonymous" doesn't seem to protect the victims, just the abusers.

  14. It is interesting that using Anonymous as a name draws criticism but using a fake name does not.

  15. @Jerry: You're right but I included "screen names" in the article.

  16. When I first began blogging I didn't use my real picture but changed it because I wanted the trolls and nasty anonymous commenters to see that I was a REAL person and not a screen name or just a blog...but a flesh and blood person. Whether this actually helps, I'm not sure, but I wish less people posted as anonymous. It’s way too easy to harass, name-call, disrupt the debate and malign. They don’t have the guts to use their real identities when they terrorize hence they’re ‘anonymous’ but we all know they’re lowly cowards.

  17. I wasn't clear. My point about anonymity is not directed toward rebutting attacks or rumors already out there, it is about opening to public view police, employment, etc., practices that, if not anonymous could not get out and could not allow people suffering from abuses to find, ideally offline, means to organize against them. The process is long, the difficulties real, but the need for people to reveal practices that won't bear the light of day or that are simply illegal, may begin with anonymous web discussions and the awareness that more than one person is finding or suffering from these practices.

  18. Pamela and Advice: For whatever reasons your comments went to Spam and I just now noticed them. I have no idea how that happened and I am so sorry.

    @Pam: I agree with you. They usually are cowards in my opinion. There are a few exceptions and sometimes I will let them through - but not if they're nasty or rude.

    @advice: When I posted this on FB, someone offered up the thought that some people feel the need to be anonymous out of fear of losing their jobs if, for example, a boss doesn't like their politics. I hadn't even thought of that one. What you say has merit, certainly, but if everyone can write and post anonymously, how does one know whether someone who is posing as "Anon" isn't the "enemy" - so to speak.