mamamusings: June 16, 2003

elizabeth lane lawley's thoughts on technology, academia, family, and tangential topics

Monday, 16 June 2003

more on gossip

Not everyone agrees with my post in defense of gossip. But I suspect it’s as much an issue of unclear definitions as it is differing perspectives.

Let me be clear—when I say “gossip,” I mean it in the broad sense of “discussion about other people.” Not lies, not innuendo, not (necessarily) trash talk.

If I say to you “Hey, I just found out that Bob got a big NSF grant!”—that’s gossip. If I say “It’s been over a week since our usually compulsive next-door neighbor cut his grass—I wonder if he’s sick,” that’s gossip, too. So is “Elouise sure looks good…I heard she and Liz are working out regularly at the gym.”

Last night, I noticed Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs on the bookshelf next to the bed, and I had the clever idea of looking in its index for the term “gossip.” There it was. Pages 128-130, in the chapter entitled “The Evolution of Reputation.” Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Rheingold talks about gossip in the context of economic theory games like “The Ultimatum Game”:
The Ultimatum Game takes place between two players who play it once and never again. The players can share the sum of money, but only if they agree on a split. A coin flip gives one player the option of determining how much of the total to keep, and how much to offer the other player. The other player, the “responder,” can accept the deal and the money is split as proposed, or the second player can reject the deal and neither player gets any money. The result that is not surprising to people who value fairness but puzzles those who see humans as rational creatures who act in their own self-interest is that two-thirds of the experimental subjects offer between $40 and $50 out of $100 total. Only four in in one hundred people offer less than 20 percent, and more than half of the responders reject offers smaller than 20 percent of the total.

What’s the relationship to gossip? Read on …

Why would anyone turn down 20 percent of something in exchange for nothing? Martin A. Nowak, Karl Sigmund, and Karen M. Page of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton propose an evolutionary model. Emotions evolved over millions of years of living in small groups. In such groups, gossip distributed information about who accepts unfair treatment and who resists it passioately. If others learn that an individual is willing to meekly settle for smaller than their fair share, they are likely to make lower offers to that individual in the future. [ … ] Reputation for being a sucker is costly.

(Several of my colleagues at RIT may see some relevance in those last two lines.)

As the chapter continues, there’s more discussion that I think is relevant to what I’m defining as gossip. Rheingold goes on to talk about the role of self-monitoring in defining and maintaining communities, and he quotes sociologist Marc Smith (the first social scientist I’m aware of who did significant study into participant behavior on Usenet):

Effective self-regulation relies upon sanctioning, which relies upon monitoring. If it is difficult to identify either the largest contributors or the most egregious free riders, sanctioning, whether in the form of reward or punishment, cannot function effectively. [… W]ithout the background of a social network of general awareness among neighbors, most neighborhoods become more dangerous and shabby.

I think all of that applies in the context of a work community. We use office gossip to self-monitor, to apply (informal) sanctions to those who violate norms, to reward those who exceed expectations.

Does this mean gossip is never mean-spirited, that it’s never based on lies and innuendo and unsubstantiated rumors? No. But my definition of gossip is broader than that. And to dismiss gossip as a “bad thing” because it is sometimes used in bad ways seems to be a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

(So, Tom…yes, perhaps I was dismissive. But it’s not because your blog is on LiveJournal. :) It’s because you made some pretty strong comments of your own, dismissing gossip—and gossipers—as mean-spirited petty power-grabbers, and I thought that was a very simplistic view. )

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Liz sipping melange at Cafe Central in Vienna