Monday, February 14, 2011

Social media website both reveals and creates problems for small towns

Anonymous comments on the social networking website are proving troublesome for some small towns. Since 2007, Topix "has listed newspaper articles and blogs from thousands of sources by subject and geography, allowing users to type the name of a town, city or a ZIP code to link to local stories and forums," Grace Schneider of The Courier-Journal of Louisville reports. Critics say the website's forums encourage anonymous rants, gossip, libel and cyber-bullying, but some say the site offers increased accountability for officials and institutions in communities.

"The reason why people have a hard time with us is because a lot of the stuff is actually true," Topix CEO Chris Tolles told Schneider. "We are the WikiLeaks for small-town America in a lot of cases." Stioll, Tolles said, he and his staff are working on ways to "push things in a more civil direction." Schneider called him after Topix posts were blamed for a multiple murder-suicide that wiped out a fanily in Austin, Ind., last month.

Schneider also found that Topix can be particularly troublesome for small towns because it's easier to discover the subjects of postings despite the anonymity, according to Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County who specializes in social media research.

Tolles reports Kentucky is the website's most active state with over 1 million daily page views, but even there "the site is reviled by some community leaders as a mostly corrosive influence," Schneider reports. Glasgow Mayor Rhonda Trautman told her that recent postings about her city included "a local bankruptcy, an alleged sex offender with address provided, someone inquiring about where to buy pornography, and the mention of families whom the writer alleged are inbred."

However, the anonymity that bothers local leaders may also be the most important part of the website. Schneider writes: “Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, agreed that such sites serve an 'accountability function.' Many newspapers in rural communities lack the resources and the backbone to tackle controversy, he said, but 'these Topix sites provide unfiltered, anonymous criticism (which) can be healthy.'” (Read more)


Anonymous said...

All I find is a site full of libel and the worst of the worst people for our local site. Topix used to charge for even the most egregious of the smear to be removed, but the attorney general put a stop to that last year. While other people are held to a higher standard of actually having to prove what they write, Topix is the Wild, Wild West of crap. They should be sued and sued often.

Nancy said...

Several weeks ago, posted a tweet that hashtagged my home town. There was no connection between the story and the town, but it appeared anyway.