Threads of Fear
The message boards that cover Tennessee Volunteers sports, especially football, can be the source of breaking news. The discussions that ensue are often an open, somewhat reasonable debate on the developing stories that shape the future of the Vols, even before the larger public has a chance to digest the news via more conventional sources such as newspapers, radio, and television.
But, those same message boards are also often a concoction of extreme phobias, prejudices, psychopathologies, and pretty much any anti-social, maladaptive thought or behavior. They can be a noxious cocktail of xenophobia and paranoia. For example, anything that is outside the normative values of the commenter are characterized as “Canadian”, “gay”, “liberal”, “socialist”, or other such descriptive insights. Anything that has a hint of being an attack on the Vols is seen as a plot to undermine the athletic program – practically everything the SEC, the NCAA, or ESPN does is generally seen as an attempt to punish Tennessee, or at the very least to humiliate them.
These message boards are the gathering places of the brethren, but are also the path of the occasional interloper from other fan bases to drop sociopathic bombs onto the orange faithful. As such, the flammability rating of the boards are of a value that would render them almost impossible to safely or legally transport in a vehicle if they were a physical, tangible thing.
This is why it is so surprising that Barbara Willits is a frequent visitor – as reader and commenter. She is an active member of these online communities. Barbara is a native and current resident of McMinnville, the small town between Nashville and Chattanooga on the Highland Rim that was the former home of Dinah Shore. She teaches at the Warren County Middle School, where she fights the daily fight against ignorance in all its forms, including the xenophobia and paranoia that she sees virtually every time she visits the message boards.
Perhaps perplexing, Barbara finds the message board community irresistible, intoxicating, and addictive. As a lifelong Vol fan, Barbara is ultimately curious of the representativeness of these message boards. Are they the true heart of the fanbase? Are they a reliable barometer of the majority as opposed to that of an unbalanced few? Certainly the number of commenters are very small compared with the total numbers of the Big Orange Army. But so are the numbers of people who are polled outside voting locations – miniscule numbers upon which grand, and usually accurate prognostications are made.
It is the psychological aspect of the whole thing that attracts Barbara. She majored in psychology at UT in the 1970s, and followed that with a masters in education so that she could put her learning to a noble endeavor – the teaching of our youth.
Now, she is thinking about embarking on a radical approach to secondary education – allowing her middle school students to log in to the message boards covering Vol sports in order to expose her students, and guide them, through the venerable minefield of posted comments.
Barbara wants to kill the xenophobia and paranoia before it kills her students.
I’ve asked Barbara to weigh in here at Vols in the Fall to let us know how here project progresses throughout the coming school year – particularly the 2011 football campaign.
Here’s hoping we get some feedback.