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.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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