It is a curious paradox that the day which is traditionally dominated by the deity devoted to love and adoration should also be remembered (albeit as a footnote) for the demise of ‘LittleGossip’, the fallen angel of online interaction…
LittleGossip is, or was, the ‘social networking’ channel where users could chat anonymously about anyone and everyone. Originally developed as a virtual water-cooler, it was developed for sotto voce prattle between colleagues. Whilst it became self-evident that the intended audience – generally speaking – had neither the time nor the inclination to get involved, it didn’t take a genius to identify a likely demographic who have both commodities, namely school children. As such a number of schools started to appear, supported by playground commentary, and with it a wave of anti-bullying concerns surfaced from all quarters including ‘mumsnet.com’ and national publications such as The Daily Mail. LittleGossip responded by attempting to de-list schools, but the groundswell of interaction proved incredibly difficult to contain, with many slipping through the net.
Whilst the worst fears of the website’s detractors never truly materalised, LittleGossip was nonetheless closed yesterday accompanied by the almost Orwellian statement: “Voice without ownership means that a person’s worst side can surface.” The closure in itself is noteworthy, but of greater significance is the notion of self-regulation, which underpinned its retirement.
Throughout the meteoric rise of forum interaction witnessed in the early 2000s people tended to cloak their identity with random or unidentifiable user names. This practice allowed them to drift from conversation to conversation unrecognised, and thus arguably less accountable for their point of view. (A practice which is still evident, albeit less so, today.) However, social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn went some way to demystifying online conversations, precisely because you had to establish your connection to someone by providing information such as your real name or prior relationship before you can talk freely to them. Moreover, the recognisable nature of a person’s profile forced most users to regulate themselves, precisely because comment is easily attributable.
Significantly, the concept of accountability was also adopted by the owners of LittleGossip themselves, as it was they who took the decision to close the site. They claimed that “despite taking extensive measures to prevent malicious and unwanted comments a minority of irresponsible people have continued to abuse the site, something that we can not support”. It would be romantic to overstate this action, however it is interesting to note that the operators of a site with significant traction are prepared to pull the plug on their creation, before they lose control.
We should recognise their decision, and the wider implication that whilst comment should be encouraged, not being able to recognise a detractor feels inherently ‘anti-social’, and can create an environment which is nasty, brutish and short-lived.