A woman complained to a friend, "She told me that you told her the secret I told you not to tell her."
"Well," replied her friend in a hurt tone, "I told her not to tell you I told her."
"Oh dear!" sighed the first women. "Well, don't tell her I told you that she told me."
Back when we were still single, my friend Laura and I as well as some other friends went to see a movie. Afterwards we all decided to pop in to a bar-n-grill place. We ordered food and drinks but I think (more than anything) people just wanted to prolong the socialization. As tends to happen with a larger group, the conversations became fragmented and segmented across smaller pairings of people. Laura and I sat beside each other and joked about the lead actor, who we thought was very good looking.
"I wouldn't throw him out of bed for eating crackers," I joked.
"Ha ha I'd even have his baby," Laura, notorious for not being keen to start having children anytime soon, joked back.
By the next day, the news in the social group was that Laura was pregnant and "who is the father?" speculation began.
Laura was furious, "Why would they believe something like that? I'm not even dating anyone right now!"
I said, "I think the bigger question is why would they want to believe something like that?"
What prompted someone, who misunderstood a fragment of overheard conversation, to spread it, and what prompted the next person to pass it along?
Eventually, a concerned mentor took Laura aside for a Quiet Chat.
Laura fumed to me later when she called to tell me this new turn of events, "What gets me most, Julie, is that nobody even bothered to ask me if it was true. They all just assumed it was! Everybody has been talking about me but nobody has been talking to me!"
It took a while to dispel the rumor, but eventually, it did die down, largely because of the new one that took its place.
Why do we do this? (And confess...we all do this!)
"...gossip is more than just idle chitchat, it's also how we arrange our world as social animals," says Nigel Nicholson, Ph.D. in his article The new word on GOSSIP, "As anyone who has lived in a small community knows, gossip is something that people who share a collective identity do naturally. But rampant individualism, the fragmentation of our lifestyle and the pervasiveness of competitive striving can drive gossip and rumor down more poisonous channels."
I recently discussed my reservations about the new media for gossip: techgadgets that record sights and sounds quickly, and the ease of transmission for broadcasting it.
Nicholson has an answer for that, too, "It is only in recent biological times that we left the world of clan-dwelling primates for the world of agriculture, city settlements and, eventually, business organizations. We inhabit our high-tech world with Stone Age minds because there has not been enough time to change our psychology to match our environment."
I think he is saying our means exceed our ends. Or our technological means exceed our personal smartness means. Either way, I think I agree. We're still just humans, just with cooler toys.
Toys, as I said, that can be used or abused.
Stories---be they gossip or news---are so easily spread via the Internet.
Once upon a time criminalists were concerned about sharing certain criminal news stories for fear of copycats, which invariably occurred.
It's true: newsmakers break through boundaries and it somehow gives others permission, too.
For example, in Jena, Louisisiana, the Jena 6 scandal broke.
Not long after, hundreds fled Pearland High after a similar noose incident.
Eventually, this story resulted in an MBTA worker being suspended for including a noose as part of his Dia de los muertos costume on Halloween.
Viral is the new black. We have viral videos, viral blog posts, viral gossip.
The catch word of the day is viral.
What makes something so catchy and what makes us so willing to spread it?
What is gained when we do this? And what is lost?
If you have a theory, feel free to let me know.
In the meantime, I'll scan my husband's latest read, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (do I want to know why this is what he's reading these days?) and you can read what others have to say about the topic.
Please share your experience and thoughts about viral news and gossip.
Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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