Utica Topix: Wild West or Civic Forum?
It's been slightly more than six years since it began, but since its humble beginnings, forums on Topix have risen to the position of cult classic.
In December 2005, the news aggregator had only been posting news stories online, but when the site became inundated with phone calls and e-mails, the decision was made to begin offering the forums many accustomed to today.
Jonathan Ward, Director of Community for Topix, says the decision was easy, considering the website's history.
"We still have the news, but most people tend to gravitate toward the forums," Ward said. "When you come to the website, we automatically put you in your hometown and from there users can create threads, usually about local politics and things like that, that's the idea."
The website offers about 400,000 topical-based forums through every municipality in the United States, servicing millions of people per day. It also has ties with large news media chain companies, Tribune, Knight Ridder and Gannett. As a news aggregator, the site posts from more than 74,000 different sources and accepts public criticism on each city's local news.
But how does Utica's Topix fare against larger cities like New York and Los Angeles?
"Looking at the stats Utica is currently in the top 10 of Topix forums with regards to page views," Ward says. "They are also averaging around 5,000 unique users per day. That means that roughly 8% of the overall population of the city makes use of the Utica forum on a daily basis."
Many of the threads on our local page fall well within the company's wide umbrella of accepted discussions. But, Ward also notes that our local site also sets some other high marks, especially in the realm of reports and racial threads. Critics of the site suggest that the allure of anonymity and lack of constant moderation thrusts the city into conversation that is neither warranted or acceptable. Ward disagrees, but says there is a problem to address.
"Utica has some interesting users in there, but there are some racially bent threads," Ward said. "From what I can tell it looks like there are a small contingency of users who are intent on having their voice heard over everyone else... They seem intent on coming in and making these controversial threads. It's sad because it's starting to extend and drown out the voices of the people who are there for legitimate discussion."
The issue has become big enough to raise Utica's rankings in other ways, especially in the realm of race based threads and reported posts by users.
"To a certain extent, we have similar behavior in other forums, but not necessarily racially there," Ward noted. "I would say Utica kind of runs to the top as far as that sort of thread right now."
Utica, at the last Census in 2010, had a population of 62,000. Among those counted, more than 35 percent were nonwhites. The city is home to the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, who according to their website, have hosted more than 13,000 refugees during the past 3 decades. People have streamed into the city from 31 countries, including Vietnam, the Sudan, Afghanistan, Burma and others. So, why the hostility?
Ward says it isn't the fault of the posters, but rather what he says are maybe "two or three" people who are motivated to post the material. He does say there is a growing contingent who are standing up to those posters.
"We generally allow the population to set the tone for their own forum and what they'll tolerate," Ward explained. "Then we rely on the users in that forum to bring things to our attention when stuff starts going south. I wouldn't call it a 'Wild West' but what Topix does is provide an open forum for every community to be able to talk about things going on in their community."
Utica's high numbers of reports and banned users from the site's moderators have helped weed out many of the posts, but the community also plays a vital role in the forum's continued vitality.
"If a few people decide to talk about people having affairs and thing like that, hopefully the community as a whole will not tolerate it and bring it to our attention. I think that any technology carries with it the ability to be abused."
But, he says the answer is not to simply remove the website or take away everyone's rights to comment and perform their civic duty. The risk of losing thoughtful communication is much to high.
"If you hand ten people a piece of paper and a pen, probably one of them is going to draw a dirty picture," Ward said. "But, you can't take the paper away because the other nine might be writing a love letter or a letter to their congressman. It's one of those things where a few bad apples can spoil the whole bunch. But, I think that if the community comes together and says 'Hey, we don't want this,' and they bring it to our attention, then hopefully we can do something about it."
Topix, which celebrated its 200,000,000th total comment last month across its many networks, hopes to continue its strong relationship with the city of Utica. Ward noted the city is very civic oriented and shows more public input than much larger cities, with topics centered around the city's governmental officials and community.