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 relationships between Hollywood stars and their audiences. The tropes of glamorous celebrities living normal, everyday lives, albeit with better hair and better clothes, were key to engendering a sense of intimacy. Over the course of the century, the movie star gossip magazines led to TV gossip, then more general celebrity gossip.
By the time the 90s came around, bringing the dawn of reality TV, the gossip pool was widened even futher. More and more Aaronsons and Zakowskis were gaining prominence, disseminating the idle rumours Pattis and Selmas were feeding them as entertainment news.
There may be an evolutionary reason for our compulsion to gossip. In his book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, Dr. Robin Dunbar argues that gossip is a form of social grooming that helps social bonding among large groups of people. Psychologist Dr. Margaret Paul goes further still, arguing gossip to be an addiction, saying: “it is a way of avoiding responsibility for your feelings, and can be used by the wounded self as a way to connect with others.”
This desire to connect goes some way to explaining how gossip exists now, in the age of social media. We’ve arrived at a place where manufactured, celebrity gossip, and the kind of throwaway stuff you might hear down the pub back home, have converged, aided and abetted by the internet.
On Facebook, groups for local communities allow Squinting Windows-style chat to exist in a digital space, with stories of badly parked cars and dog poo left on the pavement posted for all to see.
Meanwhile on Twitter, people’s enjoyment of which is predicated on a need to forge connections, people not only give a lot of themselves away, but also, anyone they come into contact: who served them coffee that morning, who came to fix their boiler, who they overheard talking on the bus. There’s also the notion of a subtweet, a not-so-thinly veiled post that doesn’t mention anyone specifically, but includes enough clues or codes to make it clear enough to the right people who the post is about.
In a way, these digital missives are no different to how we’ve always gossiped—and indeed, gossip has always spread with the same virality that social media fosters. The scale, however, is different. At some point we’re going to have to discuss the ethical implications of essentially talking about people behind their back, without giving them a right of reply, to potentially thousands of people.
There are already cautionary tales to how this can backfire. Last year, the case of London artist Hetty Douglas who secretly photographed two labourers at McDonald’s, posting it on Instagram with the comment “these guys look like they got 1 GCSE” led to concerns over “public shaming” after Douglas received several thousand messages condemning her post.
This, however, is an extreme example. Not everyone who calls out a barista for being slow, or who talks about feeling awkward when there’s a labourer in their house, will be made an example of in such a way. More often than not, these items of gossip will just seep into the daily fabric of conversation.
The problem is, this fabric is no longer impermanent, a conversation with a friend that gets forgotten moments later—it stays dried, ready to be used as evidence of the kind of person you are, or once were.
The downside to the intimacy of relationship on social media is that they trick us into thinking that our conversations are private, rather than posts on a public forum. Reality TV stars always say after a while, you forget the cameras are rolling. It feels like we’ve done the same thing.
There will always come a time when you’re not Aaronson or Zakowski, or Patti or Selma, but when you’re Marge, and your business is being discussed behind your back, without your consent. This is the more insidious, dehumanizing side of gossip, and the side to which social media draws itself to.
As we continue to live more of our lives online, directly connecting with larger groups of people, we should be more willing to questions whose stories are whose to tell, lest we get to the point where everyone is holding their cards a little closer to their chests, making those intimate, long-lasting relationships that can happen so organically online, a lot more difficult to forge.