When The Tribal Goes Neo-Tribal, Bad Things Can Happen

Small-town rural America is a nosy and noisy place to live, with everyone wanting to know – or make up – everyone else’s business. But the agency of the web can change that, especially a potent brew of anonymous commentary and its impact on real-world perceptions:

A.G. Sulzberger, Small-Town Gossip Moves to the Web, Anonymous and Vicious

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.

“We’re running the Gawker for every little town in America,” Mr. Tolles said.

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.

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.

“If names had been put on and tied to what has been said, there would have been one killing after another,” said Lonnie Hendrix, Hyden’s mayor.

Tribalism is based – in part – on strong connections among in-group members, and strong antipathy for ‘outsiders’. These relationships are generally kinship based in real-world tribes, with strong norms – religious and cultural – to keep members from breaking social rules. But tribal societies are often vengeful, when actions are taken that cause offense, like becoming involved with the wrong person, or saying that someone has done an unacceptable thing, like adultery.

Perhaps nothing is a better argument for urbanism than the petty gossip of small towns, and anonymous social media is like nitroglycerin in that setting. If historically strong social organizations still had real stature in the community, like government or religion, Topix would be outlawed. But old-time control by authority figures like the pastor or mayor is no more (remember Footloose?), and in that social power vacuum you find the worst sort of social anarchy.

One of my areas of investigation is the urban web: how real-world, face-to-face social interaction can be amplified – for better or worse – by web social networks. Here is a textbook case showing the amplification of the basest aspects of sociality – prejudice, ostracism, bullying – given the addition of an unchecked social amplifier.

Just to counter this example: I believe that in a true urban setting – in cities large enough to allow people to live out loud or anonymously, as they wish – the combination of social networks and social scenes will lead to the greatest explosion of human creativity and humanism of all time. But in the close confines of small-town bounded networks, where people lack social buffers, it can lead to the worst strata of hatred and contempt. More than anything, it reminds me of the witch trials of old New England, or the tribal feuds of cattle- (and daughter-) stealing clans of Scotland. Or the movie Chocolat, but without the happy ending.

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