more on gossip

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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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A wonderful piece on gossip by Professor Liz Lawley brought me to the connection it has with Open Source from reading the latest in the developing saga between SCO and IBM. For the uninitiated, SCO is suing Big Blue to... Read More


I don't think I've ever met a person who doesn't sometimes engage in gossip (though I've certainly encountered people who don't engage in gossip of the mean-spirited rumor-mongering type).

I think gossip is the inevitable result of our capacity for language and our inherent sociability.
Yes, it can be petty and destructive, but it can also be generous and constructive. It's an expression of our basic curiosity about one another, and our desire to form and live in societies and communities.

Of course the term is still coded as feminine (men bond and network, women gossip). I suspect this may have something to do with the bad rap it gets.

It's too bad that "gossip" is so strongly "gendered" in most people's perception. It conjures up old ladies looking out their window to see what the neighbors are up to and then running out back to pass the word over the back fence, that Mr. Jones got home late this evening -- staggering.

The sharing of scuttlebutt (the closest male term) is, as you say, critical to reputation. I am concerned that today Brands are so heavily defended against "dilution" and "defamation." When they get a bad rep they are inclined to sue the gossipers, or bloggers, into submission.

I am so pleased to be reading stuff here about social software that is sensitive to the nuances of real social communication.

Gossip, rumor, reputation, scuttlebutt, envy, malice, slander, libel, innuendo, will to truth, even celebrity, fame, ill-fame, brand equity, and even charisma. Very fertile field for discussion, investigation, modeling. Chaucer on the Parliament of Fowles. Spenser on the monster Envy. The House of the Winds. The goddess Fama --of fame and ill-fame.

I hope Liz with her literacy, and her computer literacy, will help the discussion develop a dual bibliography, both the computer-based and the humane.

About the Ultimatum Game:

Does the response of the second-player depend on who explained the rukles to him? i.e. a neutral third party or the first-player?

Is there any dependence on how much money players 1 and have beforehand? i.e. if the prize is 1, 100, or 1 million Euros?

Tell us more (or give us a link), pls.

PS: I deliberately did not comment on the relationship of this to the US/Europe standoff about Iraq :)

Thanks for the clarification Liz! But I think then that the word "gossip" inadequately represents your definition, and not least because it is historically coded as feminine (and therefore inferior) or somehow malicious. Having said that, I'm not sure what term would work better ... Perhaps it's best to stick with phrases like "discussion about other people," which can better explore context, process and mechanisms of reputation - all of which are interesting and multiplicitous, rather than duplicitous ;)

"(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.)"

We'll continue to disagree. :-)

Actually, reading your definition it's clear we're also working from two very different definitions. You can choose to say your's is the more "complex" and mine the more "simplistic" but I'll still stick to my guns.

I see your definition as being far too broad. I'm not sure where the boundary that separates "gossip" from "talking amongst colleagues/friends." Is it that any discussion between two people about a third person, who is not present, is considered gossip?

A quick hop over to Watson (that great Mac tool) to check with "The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language" (4th ed, 2000) gives the following definitions:

1. Rumor or talk of a personal, sensational or intimate nature.
2. A person who habitually spreads initimate or private rumors or facts.
3. Trivial, chatty talk
4. A close friend or companion
5. Chiefly BrittishA godparent.

SYNONYMS: gossip, blab, tattle
These verbs mean to engage in or communicate idle, indiscreet talk: gossiping about the neighbors; can't keep a secret�he always blabs; is disliked for tattling on mischief-makers.

Here's the thing: far from being Simplistic or Dismissive in my viewpoint, I was trying to point out some of the reasons behind the act. Sure gossip happens, but why does it happen?

I've just re-read my comments to your blog and Weez's blog and I don't think my comments are as value-laden as you seem to feel. I don't believe I've said anywhere that "gossip is bad"; I do say that gossip is a function of a power struggle, initiated by those with lesser power and imposed upon those on their same power level and on those in higher power levels. (I do say that the behavior being gossiped about is typically considered to be "bad")

Of course, the definition I'm using is much closer to the meaning and synonyms the people at American Heritage are using.

Care to elaborate on your definition?

(copied to my blog -- again, no fancy permalinks in the free land of LJ)


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