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.

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David Olusoga's look at a forgotten history shows there's always been black in the Union Jack

Black and British: A Forgotten History addresses one of the greatest silences in British historiography.

Nineteen eighty-four was a transformative year for David Olusoga. Then a young teenager, he was driven out of his council home, together with his grandmother, mother, two sisters and younger brother, by a sustained campaign of nightly stoning of their windows. When Olusoga recalled the experience before television cameras last year, he wept. His book is a product of that childhood terror, and partly an exploration of his condition as a black Briton. As he states, “The oral history of 20th-century racial violence has never been collected or collated, but it is there and it is shocking.”

Nineteen eighty-four affected him in another way: the publication of Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain introduced him to the scholarship needed to understand his position in Britain. Fryer’s book was monumental, inspiring conferences, publications, the setting up of local history groups, the establishment of Black History Month, and radio and television programmes. It began to alter (slightly) the history curriculum at university level: the first undergraduate one-year course on black British history and culture was taught at the University of Warwick in 1984. It was an apt university to experiment with such developments, since Lord Scarman, who reported on the Brixton riots of 1981, was its chancellor.

Olusoga patterns his narrative after Fryer’s, starting with the North African presence in Roman Britain. He updates Fryer, citing radioisotope analysis of skeletons and craniometrics, which support written documentation of Aurelian Moors guarding Hadrian’s Wall and settling in places such as Yorkshire. Indeed, third-century York may have been more ethnically and racially diverse than present-day York. Roman writers such as Pliny who chronicled – or rather fabricated – African life shaped perceptions of a continent populated by anthropophagi and other fantastic creatures, half-human, half-animal. John Mandeville, whose travelogue (circa 1356) was one of the most widely translated books of the later Middle Ages, presented Africans as naked savages living amid heaps of gold to which they gave no value.

And so, equipped with the fruits of Islamic learning (new navigational instruments, books on astronomy and trigonometry), European explorers set sail for Africa to relieve the natives of their gold. Pope Nicholas V gave his blessing, so long as the Vatican benefited. In the 15th and 16th centuries, thousands of pounds of gold were shipped to Europe. But slaves were more valuable, so the British fought the Spanish for a share in the trade and eventually came to dominate it. At the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Britain was granted the right to supply slaves to the Spanish colonies in the Americas, a right then passed on to the South Sea Company. The “South Sea bubble”, the greatest financial crash of the 18th century, was intimately connected to Britain’s dealings with Africa, though this is rarely acknowledged by historians.

The Royal African Company, established by Charles II in 1672, eventually enslaved and transported more Africans than any other company in British history. It built slave forts on the African coast, some such as Bunce Island in Sierra Leone furnished with a “rape house”. Separated from home and family and landed in the West Indies (countless numbers dying of suffocation during the journey, given that the people traffickers were packing the holds to maximise profits), the Africans had no recourse to the law, much less the conscience of their captors. The Barbados slave code of 1661 stripped Africans of all human rights, and set out ways in which they were to be punished, to exert control over their labour (mutilation of the face, slitting of nostrils, castration, execution). After decades of complaints, the Royal African Company lost its monopoly in 1712 and, Olusoga writes, “Independent traders were turned loose upon the shores of Africa.” These traders had argued (“stone-blind to irony”) that the right to enslave Africans was “a defining feature of English freedom” and that the Royal African Company had breached their status as free-born Englishmen. Eventually, 11,000 separate British slave-trading expeditions resulted in the trafficking of three-and-a-half-million Africans to the New World plantations, the greatest forced migration in modern history until the 20th century.

How could Britain, a civilised and Christian nation, indulge in rape, torture, killing and the forced labour of Africans over two centuries? The answer is money. If you had spare cash or could borrow, investment in slavery was a sure winner, never mind slave rebellions or hurricanes that destroyed cane fields. Sugar was king: originally a luxury, it became one of the main sources of calories for the British poor. And so many hundreds of thousands of British workers were directly dependent on slavery (from sailors to those who built, rigged and repaired ships) that it was easy to turn a blind eye to the inhumanity. Once insignificant villages, great cities such as Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow sprang up on the profits of slavery.

But a group of 12 disciples of Christ set out to change things. In 1787, they met in London and set up the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. They included Josiah Wedgwood (the pottery entrepreneur), Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson. Fired by religious feeling, they embarked on a campaign of public education and political lobbying “unprecedented in scale and revolutionary in nature”. Supported by African authors of slave narratives such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottabah Cugoano, they held meetings all over the country, attracting huge crowds. Thousands of petitions were presented to parliament. Women, denied a meaningful role in politics, formed their own organisations, writing tracts, pamphlets and poems, gathering signatures for petitions and fundraising: “At certain times and in certain places they were the engine room of the movement.”

Abolition was the first mass philanthropic movement in Britain, and it ended the slave trade in 1807. It could have ended earlier, but the planter interests in parliament defeated William Wilberforce’s attempts. In 1796, a bill was defeated by only four votes: a group of abolitionist MPs went to the opera and missed the vote. Between that night at the opera and 1807, nearly 800,000 Africans were enslaved.

Women such as Elizabeth Heyrick continued to lobby for the abolition of slavery. They organised a boycott of sugar, produced more petitions and hosted meetings. It was such a brilliantly organised programme of mass protest that slavery was declared abolished in 1833: 46,000 slave owners were given £20m in compensation (£17bn in today’s money), the largest payout in British history and 40 per cent of all government spending that year. The enslaved Africans had to wait another five years for their freedom and were not given a penny.

Long after slavery ended in the British colonies, British people continued to lobby the American government to free their slaves. The many African-American abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass, who visited Britain from the 1840s onwards, were well received and, again, thousands of people greeted them and raised money to support their cause.

The publication in 1852 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by the American abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, swelled national sympathy for the plight of black slaves. More than a million copies were sold in Britain – cheap pirated versions reached a mass readership. The novel became the bestselling book of 19th-century Britain; it was adapted for the theatre and generated mass-produced merchandise – playing cards, jigsaws, tableware. Its extraordinary success rested upon the “foundation of sympathy… laid down during the previous 70 years of abolitionist activity in Britain”.

Yet American slave-produced raw cotton continued to feed the 4,500 mills of Lancashire. In 1860, cotton goods accounted for 40 per cent of all British exports. In 1861, the Economist stated that nearly four million people in Britain depended – directly and indirectly – on the cotton industry; a fifth of the entire population. When the American Civil War interrupted the supply of cotton, hundreds of thousands of British workers were made destitute, dependent on soup kitchens, and the British economy was “dealt a thunderous blow, all because an ocean away the forced labour of four million enslaved black Americans had been disrupted”. Needless to say, the national mood changed. The masses who once supported black freedom now campaigned for the Deep South.

Olusoga brilliantly reveals such contradictions in British society. In dealing with the black contribution to the First World War, for example, he cites popular gratitude and admiration for black Britons – among them Walter Tull, who fought on the Western Front. Tull played professional football for Northampton but instead of signing up for Glasgow Rangers, he enlisted. Rapidly promoted to sergeant, then second lieutenant, he led white British troops into action and died in 1918, having been mentioned in despatches and recommended for the Military Cross. And yet Africans and West Indians were banned from the victory parade in 1919. Anti-black riots broke out in Liverpool that year.

During the Second World War, thousands of black American soldiers stationed in Britain were befriended by white Britons who opposed efforts by the white military to segregate them. West Indians fought with the Allies – more than a hundred were decorated. And yet anti-black race riots broke out in 1948 in Liverpool and in 1958 in Nottingham and London’s Notting Hill. The following decades were taken up with popular and political rhetoric about immigration and parliamentary acts to limit blacks coming to Britain.

Olusoga’s stated purpose is to argue that black British history is not about migration and settlement, whether of black servants in the 18th century or black workers in the Windrush era. It is about the centuries-long engagement with Africa, a consequence of which is the black presence in Britain. Olusoga has benefited from and added significantly to the work of Fryer and other historians such as James Walvin. He has discovered new and exciting research materials in African archives, among them the Register of Liberated Africans in Sierra Leone, which list names, bodily details, ethnicity and origins, thus putting a human face on people otherwise treated as fodder and statistics. Such sources give his writing freshness, originality and compassion.

Like Fryer’s book, Olusoga’s will inspire and will come to be seen as a major effort to address one of the greatest silences in British historiography.

Black and British: A Forgotten History
David Olusoga
Macmillan, 624pp, £25

David Dabydeen is a novelist, broadcaster, academic and co-editor of “The Oxford Companion to Black British History” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear