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

An article about how anonymous internet gossip destroys lives in small towns by guest contributor, Leslie Parsley.


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 TimesA. 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.” Sulzberg 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.

Sulzberg’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.

Editor’s Note:  To read more articles by the talented Leslie Parsley, visit her site, Parsley’s Pics.

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Posted by on September 25, 2011. Filed under Commentary,Social Issues,Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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14 Responses to Small Town Gossip Moves from the Diner to the Web and Turns Vicious

  1. Collin Hinds Reply

    September 25, 2011 at 10:24 am

    Anonymity is too much power for some people.

  2. Michael John Scott Reply

    September 25, 2011 at 11:41 am

    I’ve been to Mountain Grove many, many times. Like many small Missouri towns the residents live to gossip. It is their life. I can see how the anonymity provided by the internet would be a boon to some. Sad.

  3. cat42 Reply

    September 25, 2011 at 11:48 am

    Some people just don’t understand how gossip can be hurtful. As mentioned in the article one victim even considered suicide. I don’t ever see a day where there will be no more gossip. People can be very mean.

  4. Leslie Parsley Reply

    September 25, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    No, we will never see a day when there will be no gossip or less abuse or harassment. However, I think if people couldn’t hide behind “Anonymous” or screen names and had to use their real names, it would curtail a great deal of it – and not just on these kinds of forums but on blogs and everywhere else people post and comment.

    • Michael John Scott Reply

      September 25, 2011 at 12:17 pm

      I agree with you there Leslie. I’ve been rather fortunate over here, as the few “anonymous” posters we get have been polite. From time to time we get trolls who just have nothing good to say about anyone or anything. I put up with it for a while and then block them. No one, certainly not my readers, need to put up with hatred and vitriol.

    • The Lawyer Reply

      September 25, 2011 at 12:55 pm

      It takes self-awareness and discipline to be as polite online as you would to someone’s face. By assuming an online fictitious name you are two-steps removed from any consequences your words may have on others. Ha! Just realized I was logged out here, so my default anonymous name “The Lawyer” is up. But, even as “The Lawyer” I adhere to the rule, don’t say it if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face. As I said as Collin, anonymity aided by technology is too much temptation to behave badly for too many. They’re not mature enough or compassionate enough to handle the responsibility.

  5. lazersedge Reply

    September 25, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    It was one thing in the past for folks to gossip now and then at the diner, the laundro mat, or at the church. Many times it would be forgotten and people would become friends again. The one thing they may not be considering these days is that the internet is FOREVER. Once something is out there it is pretty well out there for eternity, well, maybe not that long, but a long, long time. Spoken words can be forgotten. Tapes can be erased. But not the internet. It is a beast with a memory that puts a herd of elephants to shame.

  6. Zocora Reply

    September 25, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    I disagree with you about anonymity. Many experts, including Bruce Schneier disagree with you as well. Anonymity keeps us safe. People have always gossiped. Gossip has always destroyed some people, with or without the internet. The problem is not the medium, it is the fallibility of people and their willingness to believe the worst.

    Please read:

    • Leslie Parsley Reply

      September 26, 2011 at 11:54 am

      I simply don’t agree with you or him. Some providers do not allow people to use anything but their real names. “Anons” and screen names, as I said in the article, only protect the abuser and not the victim. I also take issue with Sulzberger that such gossip gets absorbed in bigger cities. It does not. It’s just that society has grown more used to it and perhaps more immune to it. Also, I think it’s a bigger issue than mere gossip. I guess we’ll just have to agree not to. ; )

      • Yago Reply

        December 3, 2012 at 7:57 pm

        Ole1, caso voc esperar um mitnuo na pagina voc nao precisara cadastrar.e nf3s sf3 colocamos pois apenas 1 pessoa nos doou pelo pagseguro, e nao podemos tirar dinheiro do proprio bolso para manter o site, eu tiro o meu tempo, e ainda tenho que pagar por isso? vocea acha isso justo?Obg e tenha uma otima semana

  7. Dorothy Anderson Reply

    September 25, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    Oh, Bravo, Leslie! What a great post, especially this one, which presents a conundrum.

    Trust the human race to develop a tool that allows for communication and positive exchange among people across the world.

    I agree with The Lawyer: if one writes something they wouldn’t normally say, they should not write it.

    It’s true that at one time, people would go to a local coffee shop, laundromat, bar, etc. and have a gossip session. Once something is online, it’s there forever.

    Traditional gossip often gets vicious in small towns (I lived in one for two years), but it wasn’t broadcast across the world as it is now. Vicious, spiteful people will ignore the possibility they can learn in favor of spreading ugly rumors. Small town suffer more from this problem: usually, they see neighbors daily.

    There’s less anonymity in a large metropolis, but there is still a lot of personal information online that can be disseminated far too easily.

    As lazersedge wrote, the internet is a beast with a memory that puts a herd of elephants to shame. (Very poetic…)

    Just think about Batshit Bachmann raging about the HPV vaccinations one week, then saying she never said it the next (even though it was on tape).

    If people had to use their real names, yes, I think there’d be more civility… except from people who are bullies or worse. That’s one reason to stay off the radar by using a pseudonym: it helps protect privacy as much as is possible these days.

    Then, again, Zocora makes an excellent point. Anonymity keeps us safe, especially when we’re looking for jobs.

    Many employers Google and scrutinize potential employees. If an employer doesn’t like the politics or religion of the applicant, HR may report to the potential supervisor not to hire the person. I’ve had it done to me.

    So glad to see you here, Leslie.

    • Leslie Parsley Reply

      September 26, 2011 at 11:56 am

      The employment issue is probably the best argument for anonymity I’ve heard.

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