The Topix online forums are meant as local news discussion boards for small-town America, but have turned into a "cesspool of character assassination," according to a diner owner in one "hardscrabble town of 5,000," the New York Times explains today. Others from tight-knit communities have experienced a similar shift from in-person gossipy whispers to evil online anonymity, especially in rural areas like the Ozarks, Appalachia, and in the South, "where an older, poorer and more remote population has lagged the rest of the country in embracing the Internet." Now they get it and all hell is breaking loose! Or people are just being as evil as they always have been.
That's not to say there aren't still useful posts about school systems or restaurant openings on the forums:
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.
Unlike Facebook, these comments aren't tied to people's real names, so the rumors are "stirring widespread resentment in communities where ties run deep, memories run long and anonymity is something of a novel concept." In a somewhat dubious attempt to differentiate our America from their America, the Times' heir–reporter A.G. Sulzberger even employs a red-state metaphor: "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."
While the distinction makes for good narrative scenes, like the aforementioend diners and gas stations, the consequences of cyber-bullying are the same as they've been in more urban areas. Which is to say, occasionally tragic:
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 CEO Chris Tolles defends the company as promoting free speech and brags, "We're running the Gawker for every little town in America."