Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What's The Matter With Adults These Days?

I've heard that there are some very informative and entertaining morning shows on TV.

Personally, I wouldn't know.

You see, from the moment I get up until my daughter is safely out the door, I don't sit down. There's breakfast to be made, lunch to be packed, homework to be nagged about, dress code to be double checked. There are plenty of last minute firedrills too ... "I can't find any clean gym shorts." Or "Can you proofread and print my 10-page science report?"

My husband does, from time to time, clue me in on any news he thinks is ... well ... newsworthy. These include hardcore journalism subjects like the arts, book reviews, fashion week, guest appearances by my favorite performers. But, this morning, he recorded a Today Show segment that I found particularly upsetting.

The story focused on Internet gossip in a small Missouri town. Not just any town, but Mountain Grove, where my mother grew up and where my sister, brother and I spent many of our childhood summers. According to reporter Kevin Tibbles, a number of residents there have been targeted with vicious gossip on a website called Topix. And, it is tearing up the community.

Mountain Grove is located about an hour from Springfield in the southern part of the state. Its population is 4,500 people, up by about 25% from the Mountain Grove I knew in the 1960s and 70s. The town's small size was only one of the features that made it such a contrast to my home in New York City.

We lived in a high rise in midtown Manhattan with a terrace, elevators and a doorman. But, in the summers, we enjoyed a different set of amenities. My grandmother's house on West First Street had big yards, front and back, a robust vegetable garden, an attic in which to play dress-up, and a cellar filled with canned peaches and pickles. We used to boast that we had the best of both worlds. Sophisticated city living during the school year, and clean country air and bare feet in July and August. And, one of the biggest differences was the anonymity of the big apple compared to the "everybody knows your name" feeling of small town America.

Well, it appears that some of the people in Mountain Grove not only know each other's names but have chosen to smear them online. The Today story included a woman who was accused of running a sex club and another who has been called "a whore with AIDS" and is planning to move away as soon as she can.

It's important to point out that the entire town is not participating. But, Topix, which claims to be the leading news community on the Web, "connecting people to the information and discussions that matter to them in every U.S. town and city," does have over 500 users in its Mountain Grove forum. Do some quick math and you realize that it's a significant percentage of the town's adults.

And, that's what troubles me most. We are talking about adults. When my daughter and her friends get into a little trouble online (and, believe me, they do — although, thankfully, nothing too serious), I chalk it up to immaturity and inexperience. We discuss what's appropriate — and what's not — frequently. My daughter would roll her eyes and say, "Yeah, way too frequently." The lessons I try to teach are also being echoed by school principals and guidance counselors. I always assume that she'll get through the troublesome tween years and grow into a respectful cyber citizen someday.

But, maybe I shouldn't be so confident. Look at the examples out there. Not just the mean-spirited posters in Mountain Grove — who I firmly believe are just a small if vocal minority of its citizens and whose behavior is in no way unique to that town. But, what about popular celebrities and our elected officials? There are too many scandals and far too many news stories about inappropriate tweeting, texting and emailing. Whatever happened to privacy? And good manners? And spelling?

Kids will be kids. In my day and age, pre-caller I.D., we made crank phone calls. We could be mean. There were certainly bullies. Gossip is nothing new, but even the most salacious whispered tidbit didn't circulate the way an online observation can today. We all know this. In theory, we all agree that it's a terrible thing. But, the bad behavior continues to grow and to get attention. I had never heard of Topix before this morning. If I want to start a nasty rumor, I know just where to go.

Many years ago, Stephen Sondheim wrote a poignant and very intelligent song for his musical Into the Woods, called "Children Will Listen." In it, he warns that we have to be careful of the things we do because children will look to us as models. They listen (sometimes), but more importantly they observe.

Let's hope that when it comes to living life out loud online, my daughter's generation will do as we say, and not as we do.

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