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A Network-Destroying Forum

I was browsing nytimes.com when I came across an interesting news article. Here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/20/us/small-town-gossip-moves-to-the-web-anonymous-and-vicious.html the New York Times explores the effect the introduction of a now common occurrence – an online forum – has on a small town community. I myself was surprised that even now, such a seemingly small event could have such a large impact on a community.

Online public forums are a common means of communication in the modern era. They are used primarily for discussions, the subjects of which depend on the nature of the website and the subject constraints the moderators pose on the users. With the advent of such an open-ended method of discussion came the inevitable plague of human verbal destruction, with the concept of “flame wars” and “trolling” introduced. Indeed, many online forums suffer from “trolls,” who purposely try to anger other users or provide exceedingly false information while acting innocent. Many forums require a username and password, and the username of the user shows up on his/her post. Yet some, like 4chan or the Mountain Grove Forum don’t, and anyone under the name “Annonymous” can post whatever they want. It is under this mask that the vile, destructive nature of humans can truly come alive.

In this article, the introduction of a simple online forum to a small, closely-knit community caused unprecedented social destruction. As users began to spread bad rumors and gossip about each other, anonymously and with impunity, suspicions gathered together and hung over the community like a cloud. No one knew who was posting what, but even worse people began believing what was posted, even though it was without justification. Through these ever-increasing feelings of mistrust and belief in the hearsay in the forums, the community began to break apart.

This online forum proved disastrous for the network of the town. As most of the town was interconnected, many of the edges were positive, with a few negatives inevitably scattered around. Most people had at least a weak connection with everyone else. However, with the introduction of the forum, the positive edges became question marks. Who knew who was talking bad about them behind their back? Who were their real friends? No one knew who to trust, and the edges between people began to go up in smoke. This resulted in some feeling completely isolated, and others leaving town, or even worse committing suicide. One might view the forum as exploding the network into separate nodes, with edges in between uncertain and unstable. How were any strong ties supposed to made like this?

It is unfortunate that such a form of “online bullying,” usually reserved for describing the pitfalls of teens and adolescents, could cause such mischief in a community of adults. However, one should consider that this was likely adults of an older generation, before the Internet came around. I feel that future generations will be fairly resistant to these kinds of online consequences.

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