Is the internet killing gossip?

Social media lull us into thinking we’re whispering to a friend at a party, when in reality we’re shouting through a megaphone. But every time we hold back from dishing the dirt, we become a little bit less human.

Earlier this week the editor of Newsnight inadvertently reminded us that the internet can’t keep a secret.

In what he thought was a Twitter message only he and his friend could read, Ian Katz referred to the MP Rachel Reeves, a guest on his show, as “snoring boring”.

It was hardly inaccurate. But that he actually tweeted this to the world, including Reeves herself, was embarrassing for him, and for her (although I tend to think there’s an association between the capacity to drone on like that and the kind of skin that will keep a person warm through the bitterest winter).

What with Twitter’s tricksiness and Facebook’s deliberately confusing privacy policies, not to mention those twin traps “Reply To All” and “Forward”, the internet is an engine for social embarrassment. Social media lull us into thinking we’re whispering to a friend at a party, when in reality we’re shouting through a megaphone.

But every time something like this happens, we become a little harder to lull. Katz won’t be sending any loose talk via Twitter again. Like everyone else, he is learning that there is no such thing as an off-the-record electronic communication.

The lessons have been unavoidable. First, we know we’re prone to screwing up our messaging protocols, like Katz did. Second, various corporate and political scandals have revealed to us that “delete” actually means “save until it’s time to publish”; that even our text messages – is nothing holy, LOL – can be retrieved by others long after we have forgotten about them. Third, we now know that not only can our bosses read every email we send, but so can our governments. The message is sinking in: don’t write anything you wouldn’t be happy to see on the front page of the New York Times.

I will leave it to others to discuss what the internet means for freedom of speech. I’m worried about something else: freedom to gossip.

Gossip depends on a transaction best captured by the phrase “between me and you”. Rumours spread like wildfire through entire populations, which is why the internet disseminates them so efficiently. But gossip is inherently personal. It is passed on one person at a time, or circulated in small groups.

In the online world, there is no such thing as “between me and you”. There is only “between me and anyone who is reading this or who might do so at some point in the future…” The more we wake up to this, the more we resist the temptation to dish.

I’ve noticed that friends at work exchange less of the kind of salty backchat about their managers that used to form the mainstay of the day’s entertainment. Even hinting at an informal confidence about a third party, in a one-to-one email, is these days more likely to be ignored, or to summon a stiffly formal reply.

Gossip continues, of course, in the so-called offline world. Rather than saying what they think in email, colleagues are more likely to sidle up to each other and quietly suggest a walk outside, like they’re in a very low-stakes spy movie.

But even out in the street, they’ll be nervously checking their phone because, well, we’ve all heard the stories of accidental dials and overheard conversations. As the offline world shrinks, gossip is becoming laced with paranoia.

You might say that if gossip is in decline, that’s a good thing. Perhaps you are one of those people who quietly but ostentatiously withdraws from a group the moment that gossip begins. Gossip is certainly disreputable, ungenerous and frequently unpleasant. We all learn at an early age that it’s not nice to talk behind someone’s back; that it’s irresponsible to spread stories.

But here’s the (paradoxical) thing: if you don’t gossip, I don’t trust you. The moment I establish that a new acquaintance is alert to the pleasures of gossip is the moment I start to trust them.

I don’t mean, trust them not to speak ill of me (how could I?). I mean, trust that they see the world as I do: as a place where playfulness matters as much as rules, protocols exist partly to be subverted, and pleasures taken where they can.

We use gossip to monitor about the dynamics of our social circles: the quickest way to establish the politics of your office is to go for a drink after work. Gossip has a high compression ratio: it fits a lot of information into short conversations; they don’t call it “the good stuff” for nothing.

Gossip is great a leveller, too: that the people who would be happiest if you never gossiped at work are your bosses tells you something about its egalitatarian nature.

If we stop gossiping, we will become a little less human. Professor Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist, has argued that gossip was central to the development of early human communication. Apes and monkeys, our closest kin, spend a lot of time grooming each other, not for the purposes of hygeine so much as to cement bonds of trust and affection. Humans, says Dunbar, do the same, except we have always lived in larger groups, and it’s hard to stroke all of the people all of the time.

So at some point our ancestors worked out that social chatter was a more efficient method of bonding, as well as a great way to get the inside track on who was up, who was down, and who was screwing who behind the big rock. The conventional view of the origins of language is that it enabled males to coordinate hunts. Dunbar thinks that it evolved to allow us to gossip.

Let’s not allow the internet to turn us into poker-faced, strait-laced, inhuman dullards. Let’s stand up for gossip. And meanwhile, if you want to know what I heard about how the deputy editor of the New Statesman got her job, DM me.

Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams get involved in some serious gossip in the film 1999 film "Dick".

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.