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.
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.
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.