Gossip has always existed—in fact, it might even do us good. But what happens when rumour goes online?by Harry Harris / January 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
In the Simpsons episode “And Maggie Makes Three,” Marge’s sisters Selma and Patti Bouvier promise her that they will absolutely not tell her husband Homer that Marge is pregnant. They repeat: “We promise we won’t tell… Homer.”
Then, the sisters open a phone book at the As, cutting through to them finishing at the Zs.
They’re sort of keeping their promise, but also not really. (The joke ends up being that instead of calling the whole phone book as we’re led to believe, they’ve just called “Aaronson and Zakowski, the two biggest gossips in town. In an hour, everyone will know.”)
Gossip is a paradox, a forcing of private knowledge into the public sphere, until the point comes where the cat can no longer be put back in the bag. Telling Patti and Selma not to tell Homer worked, for Marge, but she can’t tell the rest of the town not to do the same—and so her best intentions fall by the wayside.
Watching this scene, I think we naturally empathise with Marge. Her news has got out, not on her terms. However, when we really stare at the mirror, we’re all Patti and Selma, unable to keep something to ourselves, but willing to go to great lengths to deflect blame. As we become more accustomed to an information age, and as the nature of viral news becomes an everyday part of our lives, our tendency towards gossip becomes more insatiable.
While the tendency to gossip has always existed, over time, it has changed form. Originally, gossip existed in individual communities, a constant undercurrent that would leak out in pubs, from barber’s chairs, but that would rarely extend beyond the bounds of each community.
The Irish writer Brinsley McNamara’s book The Valley of the Squinting Windows explores this process, being set in a town where everyone knows everyone, and happily discusses their business from the barracks of their front rooms. In music, the Stereophonics’ Word Gets Around is pre-occupied with the same idea—its songs dipping into sports grounds, traffic jams, and overheard conversations in supermarkets, all presented not as private chat, but as public colour.
Running parallel to this is celebrity gossip. In an article published on Slate in 2011, Libby Copeland notes that celebrity gossip was introduced quite deliberately by movie studios wanting to build personal…