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Topix gets big response locally

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By Larry Rowell

Once confined to the barbershop or whispered over the backyard fence with a neighbor, small town gossip has become a global roundtable discussion where anyone can proffer an opinion about anyone or anything.

Thanks to the Internet, Topix.com is one global discussion Web site that Kentuckians have embraced with open arms, according to Chris Tolles, chief executive officer at Topix.

Topix, which calls itself the largest news community on the Web, takes its news from more than 60,000 sources such as newspapers, magazines and television stations and categorizes those stories to more than 40,600 locations and 400,000 topics, Tolles said.

For example, Topix has a Web page for Campbellsville. It takes articles from the Central Kentucky News-Journal and other newspapers across the state and posts links to those stories that allow readers to go to those newspaper Web sites and read the articles.

But Topix is more than a compiler of local news. It allows readers to comment on local news stories and to propose other subjects that aren't listed by Topix.

In other words, anyone can start a discussion about any subject they choose. And some of these subjects elicit comments that are obscene as well as abusive.

There are comments on any number of topics - from "Babe Ruth baseball" and "Where to find an Easter egg hunt" to "Men that cheat" and "My neighbor and his gross dog."

The Campbellsville page alone has had 61,861 comments posted since March 2006. The 2000 Census reported that Campbellsville had a population of 10,498.

In contrast, the city of San Francisco, Calif., with a 2000 Census population of 776,733, had just 42,544 comments posted in that same time.

Tolles said small-town America is taking the lead on the sharing of news, information and opinions on sites like Topix.

"Gossip is the gasoline that gets people talking."

Tolles said he believes Kentucky is leading the nation on Topix because of market and economic issues.

"People actually get to say what they want," Tolles said.

Kentuckians most use the site to bash each other

Mentioning Topix brings out mixed emotions in people, especially the ones who find their lives as fodder for discussion on the site, and not often in a flattering sense.

The Rev. Brian Rafferty is pastor of Liberty Baptist Church in Russellville. He recently accepted a position as pastor of Elk Horn Baptist Church and will begin on Sept. 7.

However, a recent thread on the Campbellsville Topix page included at least 150 comments about Rafferty, discussing everything from his preaching style to speculation concerning his return to the Campbellsville church where he was once a youth minister.

Rafferty says Topix is "the devil's playground."

"If everyone would just do the first two commandments, the rest would fall into place. God told us to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and, second, he told us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves," Rafferty wrote in an e-mail.

Heather Curry, manager of a local retail store, said that she asked Topix on Monday morning to remove a thread that asked readers to comment on who they believe is the worst boss in Campbellsville.

Curry was named in the topic.

"It was very hurtful and I was tempted to reply," she said. Instead, she asked Topix to remove the topic and it was removed that morning.

Curry said she has developed a thick skin because she was raised to believe that if something nice cannot be said about someone, then say nothing at all.

Tolles said that when a user reports a comment as being abusive, it is examined by one of four full-time employees the company uses to examine and evaluate whether the comments warrant being deleted.

"We pull thousands of remarks each day," Tolles said. "I take out hate speech but not name calling."

And, he added, Kentuckians most use the site to bash each other. As to why so many choose this venue is also an open topic.

Taylor County Attorney Craig Cox said that such sites provide an avenue for rumor mills.

"That the idle [people] gossip and malign others is an unfortunate commentary on those who have nothing better to do," Cox said.

Elected officials are open game for discussion, and Tolles said he supports name-calling when it comes to public officials.

Campbellsville Mayor Brenda Allen disagrees.

"If somebody doesn't have the nerve to talk to me face-to-face about whatever situation they want to talk about, then they are the biggest coward there is."

Allen said she doesn't mind people phoning her office or dropping by to speak with her about something that concerns them.

"If there's something wrong, I need to know."

Legal action possible

The results of defamatory remarks on Topix and other forums can range from verbal taunts to lawsuits for libel.

"We have experienced, in a thus far not too injurious manner, a number of juvenile matters locally resulting from such Internet encounters, which have resulted in challenges, standoffs and fights," according to Cox.

The next possible step after verbal taunts is a defamation lawsuit. Campbellsville attorney David Nunery said that defamation covers libel - printed comments by someone who knew the comments to be false.

Libelous remarks can also be used to reduce a person's reputation in the community or cause them to lose a job or their creditworthiness, he said.

Nunery said the biggest problem with libel suits is that damages are speculative; juries may or may not award anything. In addition, he said, most people don't have money or assets to pay a judgment.

Nunery said these suits are "cat fights" and that it is his belief that Christian attorneys should not engage in this type of litigation.

Those wronged on Topix should "bear it with grace and dignity," he said.

Tolles said he's not responsible for anything that appears on the Web site because the Communication Decency Act, section 230, protects any Web site provider from liability for content posted by others. It states: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

If subpoenaed, Tolles said, Topix would give out IP addresses for private individuals involved in legal actions.

"There is no anonymity," he said, "We can track you down."

But that's not to say he will do the same for public officials.

"We don't give out IP addresses on those who criticize public officials," he said.

Local gossip in local places

Some subjects are ones that may be discussed every day in local coffee shops or beauty salons.

Wayne Baxter, Alan Burris and Rex Brown shared a table mid-morning recently at McDonald's. Baxter said it's an everyday routine for the group to spend about an hour together.

The three discussed an article Baxter said appeared in the National Enquirer about former Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards' alleged illegitimate child.

"We do a lot of lying about fishing," Brown said. "And we have the pictures to prove it."

Concerning local gossip, Brown said that by the time they get to local topics, "It's done wore-out ... been through the washing machine."

Sandy Durham has worked as a cosmetologist for the past 40 years in Watson's Beauty Shop. Her mother, Eva Watson, owned and worked in the shop 50 years before she died three years ago.

"We stay so busy, we don't have time to do idle talk," Durham said. "What little there is has never been a problem, we listen and say 'Uh-huh, uh-huh and uh-huh,' and then we go on.'"

Durham attributes the lack of idle talk to the number of quality customers they've had over the years.

Misty Warren, the third generation owner, has worked in the shop for 10 years. She said she doesn't like gossip and tries not to add to it or pass it on.

Warren recently hired two new cosmetologists for the shop. Warren said the two searched Topix for any comments on Watson's.

"They couldn't find anything," she said.

-Larry Rowell is a Kentucky Press Association summer intern. Contact him at lrowell@cknj.com. Comment on this story at www.cknj.com.