Madison Monday: community, gossip and the Internet

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A few years ago at the college where I teach, there was a kind of message board attached to our intranet page that allowed students to post anonymously.  I no longer remember what it was called, but eventually, the college decided to shut it down.  When you can say things anonymously, very ugly things get said, and college students proved themselves capable of saying some very ugly things.

The review process for most journals in academia is anonymous.  This means when you send an article to a scholarly journal, in theory, the reviewers don’t know who you are as the author, and then you don’t know who they are as the reviewers.  This is all in theory because in the small, small, small world of those who publish in certain journals, you probably know who’s writing about any given topic.  All the same, the mask of anonymity seems to give some people free reign to be ugly, or at the very least, uglier than I think they might be if they had to attach their name to their comments.  Ugly in a way that is somewhat more articulate and jargony than the college students, but ugly all the same.

At some colleges and universities (thankfully, not mine) the letters colleagues write for tenure files are not anonymous, but confidential.  The person you’re writing the letter about can’t see what you wrote about them.  And under this cloak of secrecy people again get ugly.  Think of how much easier it is to say something bad about a person knowing that they’ll never get to read it and know what you said.

Sometimes in our society, anonymity is important in order to protect people.  The case of whistle blowers comes to mind.  Sometimes it is important in order to reduce bias and discrimination.  Women were under-represented in symphony orchestras until many companies started using blind (anonymous) auditions; when the committee making hiring decisions could not see the gender of the person playing the instrument, they magically found themselves hiring more women.  In these situations, anonymity is a good thing.  In many other situations, it is just a tool which emboldens people to act in ways that are, yes, ugly.

Sociologists know that behavior changes based on the degree of contact.  Refusal rates for surveys are lowest when the survey is being conducted face-to-face; it’s harder to say no to a person standing in front of you than it is hang up on someone over the phone or delete an e-mail.  You don’t have to be a sociologist to know this, in fact.  Have you ever been guilty of saying something in an e-mail that you would probably never say to someone if they were standing in front of you?  But with e-mail, generally your name is still attached.  Someone can track you down and make you talk to them.  The Internet can remove even that thin layer of accountability.

Small towns have always had their gossips.  There’s nothing new there.  And most people always knew who the mean-spirited gossips were, as opposed to the people who just wanted to know what’s going on.  In the past, even if you were a mean-spirited gossip, you had to have some people who would actually talk to you; a gossip with no one to talk to isn’t particularly effective at spreading rumors around.  This seems to me to have potentially acted as a kind of control on gossip, as minimal as it might have been.  The truly odious people probably had a smaller social network through which they could distribute their ugliness.

Enter the Internet.  With the barest amount of computer savvy you can gossip away all you want, with almost complete anonymity.  And you can spread your gossip even if no one particularly likes you or wants to talk to you.  With the innovation of the Internet, you can spread gossip even if everyone thinks you’re a complete and total jackass.

The few studies out there about gossip suggest that it can serve the purpose of social cohesion.  When I conducted interviews for my dissertation on community and belonging in my own hometown, I found that many of the people who had been born and raised in the town understood community as the ability to know everyone and everything.  Community meant that everyone knew everybody else and knew what was going on in their lives.  At 5 o’ clock, you knew it was Mr. Smith coming down the road home from work.  If the party line phone rang in the middle of the night, you knew something bad had happened to one of your neighbors.  It is often useful and sometimes comforting to know about the people who are part of your community.

But imagine again the difference between sharing gossip in the aisle of the grocery store or sitting at the local barber shop and sharing gossip on a webpage that allows you to be anonymous.  Imagine the things you say in your head to yourself about people which you would never voice out loud to another human face.  Would you be able to write them on a webpage, fairly certain in the knowledge that no one could ever trace it back to you?  Is that a good thing, or are there some ugly things that really don’t deserve to have any life outside of our own heads?

One of the central themes of classical sociological theory is the changes brought to social life by the forces of modernization.  The transition from Gemeinschaft communities of close-knit people with many overlapping ties to Gesellscaft lifestyles where each group to which you belong is completely free-standing and unconnected brings increasing amounts of freedom and individuality.  For example, in the past when family and business often overlapped, you might never be able to move out of a particular job because of the family you were born into.  In Geminschaft communities, you have less of that freedom, but you are infinitely more known; there’s little anonymity.  Modern life brings more freedom, and with the Internet, much more anonymity.  Is that a good thing?

Here’s the truth about combining the internet with small-town gossip.  Many people who actually live in the small town will know who’s responsible and will judge accordingly.  This is the useful thing about old-fashioned gossip.  If you could tell me the source of your gossip, I could judge for myself whether to trust its truthfulness.  And in this sense, even the Internet doesn’t provide complete cover.  But not everyone will know, and certainly people outside the community will not.  And what will they think?  What will they think not just about the individuals who are being gossiped about, but about our community in general?  What will they think about a town where people are motivated enough to go to the trouble of starting a website to say ugly things about people?  What will they think about a town with a website that seems intent on tearing things down rather than building them up?

The Internet is protected by free speech, and so it should be.  When people take their ugly gossip onto the Internet, we cannot shut them down.  But we can perhaps try to shout them down.  We can try to drown out the sound of their ugliness with our own voices.  We can refuse to allow them to drive the conversation, to be the only or even the loudest voice that people hear.  We can counter their voices with our own, virtual and real.  We can shout with whatever voices we have available…from the front of the classroom, from the editorial page, from the pulpit.  And though we may often disagree, we can remember that in a true community, we can disagree without forgetting the humanity of our fellow community members.  We can do better.

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