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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.

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

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.