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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Donald Trump's rise is a reaction to Obama's two terms as president

This week, from Barack Obama’s legacy to memories of Angela Carter.

My children can’t believe that I grew up in a racially segregated Alabama, or that I reported on the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa (for this magazine). One of their earliest memories is of helping a family friend sell coffee and hot chocolate in sub-zero temperatures to the crowds celebrating the inauguration of Bar­ack Obama in Washington in January 2009.

My past is ancient history to them. I strongly recommend that anybody who still feels that way watches In the Good Ol’ Days, the YouTube trailer for a documentary called 13th by Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma. It splices physical abuse of black people at Donald Trump’s rallies (and his taunts about how they would have been “carried out on a stretcher” in the past) with documentary footage from the 1960s. It’s chilling.

When Obama won the Democratic nomination for president, I went back to my old school in Montgomery to see how attitudes had changed. It was no longer segregated, of course, but it was still predominantly white. A former classmate told me that when he was five, the family handyman got chucked over a bridge and left for dead by the Ku Klux Klan. We never heard these stories in school. Then I met the progressive headmaster, who assured me that everything was non-discriminatory now. But, as I left, I was escorted to my car by the school bursar, who told me he didn’t trust Obama because he was a “Muslim”. The way he said it made it sound like the N-word to me.


Going South

There has been surprisingly little discussion about the extent to which the rise of Trump has been specifically a reaction to Obama’s two-term presidency. Yes, we have heard how Obama’s legitimacy has been questioned by the “birther” movement and we have listened to Trump crow about forcing the first African-American president to produce his papers (or rather his birth certificate). But when even a former grand wizard of the KKK – an absurd title – says that Trump talks “a lot more radically” than he does, it is impossible to ignore the racial dimension to this election.

The two big states that Trump still hopes to swing his way are Pennsylvania – memorably described by the Clinton adviser James Carville as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with “Alabama in between” – and Ohio, where my mother was born. She is from the northern Democratic stronghold of Cleveland; Cincinnati, she used to sniff, was the South. She didn’t mean geographically.


Bill and Hill

There are many good reasons to be wary of Trump but I have never felt comfortable with Hillary Clinton. The governor of Alabama in my day was Lurleen Wallace, who was in office because her notoriously racist husband was ineligible to run for a consecutive term. She didn’t even bother to disguise that she was a proxy candidate and ran as Mrs George C Wallace, while he became known as “the first gentleman of Alabama”.

Admittedly, Hillary Clinton is far more her own woman than Lurleen ever was but Bill Clinton, remember, is a former Southern governor, of Arkansas. Bill and Hill had the idea long ago of a “twofer” run at the White House – and they’ll definitely have known about the Wallaces’ example. Alas, it’s too late to dwell on how much better it would be if the first female president of the United States hadn’t already been its first lady and Bill Clinton hadn’t set his sights on returning as first gentleman. But it’s Trump v Clinton and, thus, no contest.


Granny knew best

Enough about the US elections, hard though it is to tear our eyes away from the car crash. Last week, I went to the launch party at Daunt Books of Edmund Gordon’s wonderful biography of Angela Carter, a literary heroine of mine. I was a young publicist at Virago in the late 1980s when I visited Carter at home in Clapham, south London, where she was living with her much younger husband, Mark, a potter, and their little boy. She looked like a magnificently eccentric granny to me, with her shock of thick, wavy, grey hair. I thought that she was ancient because she’d had a baby at 42 but, as ever, she was just ahead of her time.


Partial eclipse

I’d no idea until I read The Invention of Angela Carter just how many Virago novelists she had nurtured. Pat Barker, for instance, the author of the Regeneration trilogy about the First World War, was one of her protégées. The photographs, though, show Carter with the young men who eventually eclipsed her: Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro. She taught Ishiguro creative writing at the University of East Anglia and introduced him to
her agent, Deborah Rogers. He told me at the party that there were only half a dozen students on the course with him and the university couldn’t be bothered to find enough people to fill the places the following year. Yet it has since become the stuff of legend.


Lost treasure

Carmen Callil, Carter’s great friend and the founder of Virago, was also at the party. She told me that her joy in publishing faded when Carter was offered only £60,000 for her last novel before she died of lung cancer in 1992. By then, the men – Rushdie, McEwan, Amis, et al – were getting far bigger advances of several hundred thousand pounds, even though she was every bit as good as them (or better).

At the end of her life, her thoughts were on money and how her “two boys” – her husband and son – would manage without her. She told her literary executor, Susannah Clapp, to give permission to everything and anyone who wanted to use her work for commercial purposes, however naff or vulgar. Her last book, by the way, was to have been a fictional life of Adèle Varens, the vivacious young ward of Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre. How I would have loved to read it.

Sarah Baxter is a former political editor of the New Statesman and the deputy editor of the Sunday Times

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood