Small towns in rural America are putting their own spin on social networking: “they write and read startlingly negative posts, all cloaked in anonymity, about one another” on sites hosted by Topix such as Mountain Grove Forum. The New York Times reports in “In Small Towns, Gossip Turns to the Web, and Turns Vicious” that
Topix, a site lightly trafficked in cities, enjoys a dedicated and growing following across the Ozarks, Appalachia and much of the rural South, establishing an unexpected niche in communities of a few hundred or few thousand people — particularly in what Chris Tolles, Topix’s chief executive, calls “the feud states.” One of the most heavily trafficked forums, he noted, is Pikeville, Ky., once the staging ground for the Hatfield and McCoy rivalry.
Anonymity, website immunity under federal law from liability for defamatory content created by third parties, and long-time social connections and population stasis of small towns combine to make online gossip popular, riveting, and divisive. And good business:
Topix said it received about 125,000 posts on any given day in forums for about 5,000 cities and towns. Unlike sites like Facebook, which requires users to give their real name, Topix users can pick different names for each post and are identified only by geography. About 9 percent are automatically screened out by software, based on offensive content like racial slurs; another 3 percent — mostly threats and “obvious libel,” Mr. Tolles said — are removed after people complain.