in regular

Social media brings viral venom to small town America

Having lived in (more) than my fair share of small towns through my adult life, I chuckled at the NY Times article informing those living in the “big city” about what happens when some small towns get a private forum to spread their news about the town square.

In rural America, where an older, poorer and more remote population has lagged the rest of the country in embracing the Internet, the growing use of social media is raising familiar concerns about bullying and privacy. But in small towns there are complications.

The same 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.

A generation ago, even after technology had advanced, many rural residents clung to the party line telephone systems that allowed neighbors to listen in on one another’s conversations. Now they are gravitating toward open community forums online, said Christian Sandvig, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Something about rural culture seems to make people want to have conversations in public,” said Mr. Sandvig, who has studied the use of social media sites in rural areas.

This is no laughing matter though. In some of these towns, civility gets tossed out the window and it causes serious problems for people’s lives, all based on unsubstantiated rumors in many cases.

The Times article is specifically about the site Topix, but I’ve seen substantive conversations going on at city-data’s forums too. But most of these forums exist outside of the mainstream of normal social media chatter that goes on in the Twitter/Facebook social networking ecosystems.

Another place where this sort of thing goes down are newspaper comment pages. I suppose it’s just a way for people to write low-calorie letters to the editor, often lacking substance or coherence. Because the culture of social media in these areas is often curated from afar — if at all — there’s really no policing that gets done because the overwhelming majority of the people diving into the cesspool aren’t any degree of socially savvy.

One positive is that it’s bringing conversations that were probably happening anyway to the surface, empowering the people who find out about what’s being said to the fore. Of course, I’m not sure that ruining people’s reputations and causing them to alter their lives as a result could ever be a good side effect.

What a mess.