Guess What I Just Heard?

In Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, Joseph Epstein reveals how gossip, much maligned as both symptom and cause of social ills, actually serves many important purposes in human society. For one thing, chatter about other people in our network of friends and acquaintances can serve to cement relationships and alliances with like-minded individuals. Epstein also argues that expectations and rules about human behavior needn’t be enforced by physical violence because gossip and social censure can maintain societal norms.

The idea of “social currency” is very much wrapped up in both Epstein’s defense of gossip as well as in current and past modes of social media, a world in which gossip and the latest titillating news makes the rounds instantly. Although they moved at a slower-than-digital pace, “ambitious young men” in 16th century England passed poems and texts around, and those texts primarily “served as a form of social currency that could be used to establish and maintain useful connections” (Standage 76-77).

By making themselves into creators, curators, and sharers of writing, Standage shows, up-and-coming guys could win patrons and benefactors. The best could write new materials themselves by both passing along information (read=gossip) and providing new materials that the recipient could then use to impress their own circle of friends.

Today sociable humans still feel the pull to solidify and enrich friendships and acquaintanceships by passing along valuable information and ideas, and social media provides a myriad of platforms to do just that.

For example, Twitter’s name hints at the old saying when asked where you heard a juicy tidbit: “A little birdy told me.”

When a social media user passes along a piece of information, whether it be personal, gossip about someone or something else, news about a current event, or link to something salacious/funny/inspiring/intriguing, the writer looks to add value. Simply put, she seeks to tell others in her social network something they don’t already know.

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With the arrival and spread of the Internet, more and more people have access to news, information, facts, discoveries, trivia, and humor, and the web of social connectivity used for sharing, remixing, and promoting that content expanded. It also made it increasingly harder to get payoffs for sharing stuff. People are more and more likely to have already seen that thing you tag them in or share on their wall, just by the virtue of the speed with which content spreads.

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At times, social media can feel like a series of desperate attempts to share something before it gets big—to prove that you’ve got your finger on the pulse of what others will find interesting. And that you’ve read it (and shared it) first.

This world, in which social media sites can, as Standage put it, provide “personalized and constantly updated stream of links, photos, and gossip” (231), the need individuals have for sorting and seeking content that interests them is already met instantly: by heuristics and cookies and trails of recommendations, pingbacks, likes, retweets, and browser histories.

On a personal level, I believe this has impacted friend-to-friend exchange of social capital. But the biggest impact has probably been on the companies that try to predict the next big story. On NPR’s Science Friday with Ira Flatow (21 February 2014), a writer for The Verge talked about how it matters less and less who gets to a story first because of the speed in which other outlets skim and repurpose it for their own users. Magazines, websites, and apps scramble to keep tabs on what’s hot and what people are reading.

To keep our social media lives from, as W.J. Stillman wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1891, turning into “an agency for collecting, condensing, and assimilating the trivialities of the entire human existence” (qtd. in Standage 185), people need to add value to content not simply by forwarding or posting preexisting text and images. It is through *doing* something with them, putting things in new contexts, adding a personal or philosophical spin, and converting them  into something new that we provide a social service to our followers, friends, and readers. Otherwise, gossip is just gossip, and a link is just another link.

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6 thoughts on “Guess What I Just Heard?”

  1. Janel,

    Your notion of gossip as social currency has really piqued my interest. From my experience, it seems that almost everyone has that “one friend” who somehow knows everything that is going on in everybody’s lives. In that way, I’d say that being privy to such a repertoire of nearly-useless yet nonetheless titillating information raises the social status of the individual with said repertoire: people seek them out because they can count on this kind of person to have the knowledge they seek almost every time.

    Gossip, then, seems to have a very large stake in what makes someone popular, or more popular than someone else.

    The way we seek out and circulate gossip through social media nowadays reminds me of Standage’s argument about how different newspapers tried to compete with each other: “With the advent of penny papers, which had to be sufficiently compelling to get people to buy them every day, competition for timely or original news stories intensified” (177). Although Standage doesn’t explicitly say that these papers were fabricating ideas of necessarily relying on gossip to achieve better sales, the gossip-y thrust is nonetheless present in their strategies: what is the “juiciest” information we (the publisher of a relatively new small paper) can gain access to?

    I’d venture to say, then, that paper sales are roughly equivalent to the number of friends somebody has on a social media outlet, especially on a platform like Instagram where a large portion of users will “follow” complete strangers solely based on how “juicy” their photos are.

    1. I think you make a useful distinction here, Christopher, between communication that adds value and that spreads listeners, readers, influence. As academics, we tend to endorse the former, but there is clearly a use to the latter. ~Joe

  2. Janel,

    I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot lately (and the Portlandia skit was so perfect!). When I was in undergrad and trying to be a “smart person,” I didn’t understand the concept of forwarding information (a purposeful, but not intentionally brown-nosing, reference to ‘Rewriting’). Instead, my life was all about reading the “right” things and telling everyone that I had read them (and I was trying to impress David, who DID know how to forward).

    I find myself now asking myself to justify my reading and my value judgments on things: Why do I agree with this? Why do I think this is important? How does this contribute to what I already know or what someone else might know? A text, then, becomes a mode of conversation, connection, and depth rather than something actively consumed to check boxes off my list. Texts are, after all, always in conversation with other ideas and texts and, broadly, culture.

    I wonder if something like Tumblr would be a good digital representation of your concept? I read some Tumblrs, but I don’t have one of my own (and, therefore, I don’t know the technicalities of conversation that occur there). I hope that Caitlin sees this and comments, since she’s our resident expert.

    1. This whole line of inquiry is really fascinating. I think Tumblr, like most sites (especially sites with a vast variety of users), has its share of gossip-sharing posts and more questioning posts. Maybe this example will work. Like users on most social media platforms, Tumblr users talked extensively about Miley Cyrus after her performance with Robin Thicke. To a certain extent, it was simply the juicy story everyone wanted to talk about.

      I saw on Tumblr more than other social networking sites a greater degree of questioning, however. I saw posts on slut-shaming, the objectification and sexualization of black women’s bodies, and the cultural appropriation involved in Miley’s twerking. Tumblr does tend to collect more in-depth analyses of cultural events.

      But in terms of trying to collect readers or followers (I’m responding here to Chris’s comment as well), there are absolutely blogs that will fabricate a post, whether its an awkward situation, a twitter post, a news story, to get notes and attention. The twitter ones tend to be the funniest as they will be passed along as an amazing twitter conversation screenshot (usually the twitter pictured belongs to someone famous – especially popular in fandoms and revealing a spoiler or saying something offensive). Then, one user will look a bit more closely and see in the screenshot the “delete” button pictured, proving that the poster is the one who created the fake tweet.

      There’s also I think a degree of fakeness on some popular posts. Where someone will post something that will be reblogged heavily, then reblog it themselves only to say “guys stop reblogging this – I didn’t realize how many notes it would get” and reblog it again to say “SRSLY my dash” (when someone reblogs/likes something on tumblr, a notification will appear on your dash – if a post goes viral this is a bit of an issue for the poster). There’s absolutely a disingenuous fishing for notes in these type of posts. And I would echo the feeling one tumblr user, tardistrek, has: “I hope that one day the writers of Tumblr posts will realize that the society of Tumblr reads the words ‘stop reblogging this’ as a challenge and not a request” (http://tardistrek.tumblr.com/post/51091197563/i-hope-that-one-day-the-writers-of-tumblr-posts).

  3. Janel,

    The Portlandia skit on competitive reading is wonderful. Thanks.

    But, in a way, my thanking you for sharing that skit illustrates the key tension you’re exploring here, doesn’t it? I mean, you don’t really “add value” to the Portlandia skit, you make it available, and as your reader, I’m thankful. It’s gossip of the best sort.

    At the same time, I agree with your sense that we do need to “add value”—and I think you do so here, in fact, in distinguishing between “adding value” and “just gossiping.” (That was a strangely meta sentence.) I can imagine investigating that tension as a fruitful focus of a digital essay.

    Joe

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