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Christian Sandvig

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Are Rural People Meaner?

Posted: 09/20/11 12:10 PM ET

A normal Topix small-town discussion forum includes a purported attempt to out a gay man, accusations that so-and-so has AIDS, a diatribe against miscegenation, public shaming of "bad parents," announcement that this or that person is a crackhead, and more. All of these posts are anonymous.

In case you missed this New York Times story, "In Small Towns, Gossip Moves to the Web and Turns Vicious," I'm talking about topix.net. (I'm quoted in the story because I've done some recent research on social media and rural communities.)

In a nutshell, the topix.net web aggregator (http://www.topix.net/ is a portal site owned by newspaper companies that provides a "home page" for every city and town in the U.S. That page consists of a feed of local news, presumably generated algorithmically, mixed in with weather, polls, and -- critical for our story today -- a forum.

Topix forums have become the online place to be for some small towns. Unlike social media sites such as Google Plus and Facebook, which have pursued a policy of only allowing real names online, the Topix forums allow anonymous posting.

The result is a cesspool of gossip, with posts that have titles like, "People to Stay Away From." That thread consists simply of a list of the real names of people in Pearisburg, VA that the poster, a "Mr. Kickass," doesn't like. The NYT piece included some examples but they chose tame ones.

Yes, it looks like Topix is transforming gossip. Just as the Internet has transformed buying airline tickets, Topix.net is making gossip more efficient. It's now easier to reach a larger number of people, and (a terrible side effect), indexing by search engines means that an impermanent medium like gossip can now stay online indefinitely to haunt you forever. And I agree that gossip can ruin lives. There are problems.

Yet it's not clear to me that these are rural problems. I agree that rural people are different from urban people. They are in aggregate more likely to be older, less mobile, poorer, and less educated. And we know that rural people use the Internet differently from urban people.

But remember that Juicy Campus scandal about three years ago (NYT: "College Gossip Leaves the Bathroom Wall and Goes Online")? This was a new online forum that allowed anonymous posting, and it filled up with scandalous gossip about sex and drugs (well, mostly sex). It ruined lives. That was a Topix.net scenario but the locale wasn't small-town America, it was the University of California, Duke, and Yale.

Chris Tolles, the Topix CEO, is quoted in the Times article linking the situation on the Topix forums to the Hatfields and McCoys. C'mon, Mr. Tolles. Give us a break. At least he didn't mention Deliverance.

I think the formula is:

anonymity + a defined community (scale) = gossip

Rural doesn't appear in that equation. In other words, online gossip is a question of locale, not of scale.

I think it would be great if all of the gossips, racists and bigots lived on farms somewhere far away from me, but I just don't think that's the case. (For a more nuanced take on this, see Mary Gray's excellent book.)

The situation as a whole reminds me of early efforts to spread the telephone to rural America a century ago (see Fischer's excellent research). Then, CEOs of telephone companies often refused to build in rural areas because they thought that rural people were all poor and stupid. All of the major telephone company CEOs lived in big cities, and they were sure that rural folks, if given a telephone, would be too dumb to use it, would complain a lot about it, and would probably only play banjo to each other anyway.

I don't think rural people are meaner.

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[Thanks to Kristen Guth for thinking of the Juicy Campus comparison.]

 

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