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Viral Vitriol: The Hump Day Hmm for 11-28-07

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
Also blogging at:
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Christine said…
dude. gossip sucks, but there is something that draws us into it, huh? i think, a large part of it is about being "in the know" as they say. feeling like we have a special piece of secret knowledge give us a type of power. but in the end it is a futile, sad type of power that will lead us no where.

great post.
As with so many human actions, I think gossip is motivated by a fundamental sense of human loneliness and insecurity, and a subsequent need for attention, validation and respect.

The Internet and other technological breakthroughs provide a worldwide forum that serves to magnify everything we do.

Julie, yet again another brilliant post from you. I don't feel I am expressing my thoughts very well here - so I'll check back later to see what your more eloquent and insightful readers have to say.

Melissa said…
Great post. Wish I could say that I've never been there...
Gwen said…
Gossip is about the power of knowledge, but also about social standing. The Mean Girls (with their varied forms of relational aggression) left high school but they never bothered to grow up out of it, never learned healthier ways to deal with anger.

My friend and I were just talking about this yesterday morning as she is being burned by some evil, envious gymnastics moms, about what competition for limited resources (friendship, exclusive sports teams, etc.) brings out in people, and how you can extrapolate that to a larger group and more important shortages (money, jobs, decent schools).

I think the theory that our technological advances have outpaced our psychological ones is really thought provoking ... thanks for that insight!
Liv said…
I think some of it is that we mistakenly perceive that it will make us feel better to enjoy faux superiority at someone else's expense. And it seems harmless, but is really quite corrosive.

good post!
thailandchani said…
Hot button for me. It's one of the things I am most stringent about. I do not want to receive gossip nor pass it around. It's just destructive, mean-spirited and unnecessary.

Keeping someone else's information confidential is a question of honor. If we value honor, we keep our mouths shut about other people's business.

Truly. It's this simple for me. I have a strict policy in my interactions. I don't discuss others behind their backs and I don't want anyone telling me things behind someone else's back.

This is probably one of those things that's a deal breaker. I can never trust nor be a friend to a gossip.
Karen Jensen said…
I think Gwen is right about the "mean girl" syndrome. Something there is that makes us want to feel superior to our neighbors by spreading malicious gossip.
Michele said…
I used to be the worst about gossip but have tried in the last few years to stay out of it. I do get sucked back in from time to time but I really am much happier if I follow the old saying ... if you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all.
Anonymous said…
You know something odd? I hadn't been involved in any way in gossip in years (hearing, spreading, being gossiped about). I think that's because I am not a part of any "group."

And then there was Timmy's mom, who had to go and blow my record.
flutter said…
It's hurtful. It's venemous and it is a testament to people who hate themselves so much that they want someone else to hurt.
Suz said…
This hits a little close to home. Someone gossiped about me online. I found out. It sucked. I did not handle the situation well. I think that all of the online formats (texting, IM, and even blogging) just make this tendancy worse because the oxygen that fans the flame of gossip is anonymity. When we think we're anonymous and can't be overheard, we think we can say anything about anyone. It's compulsive, but it's also hurtful.
Lawyer Mama said…
Well, I'm being a bit gossiped a bit right now, so this really made me sit up and think. I wish I could write about my own "viral" experience on my blog but, alas, I am not anonymous.

That book your husband is reading sounds fascinating. I'll have to add it to my ever expanding list. Can you let me know what he thinks?
Kyla said…
I agree with Suz. The Internet ups the ante and brings out the worst in some people. They hide behind the anonymity to be hurtful.
Julie Pippert said…
I'm going out on a limb and say we all have different levels of privacy and boundaries, and I believe this seriously affects our sense of what constitutes gossip (among others factors, but I think this plays largely into the feeling of betrayal).

For example, it wouldn't per se trouble me too much to find out one friend told another friend, "Oh Julie's been sick," or "Julie's been doing X and Y and that's where she's been."

That's the sort of relaying of information that Nicholson tags as benign gossip. That's the sort he's referring to when talking about solidifying our social groups.

But some people feel immensely betrayed upon learning that ANYONE has been talking about them at all for any reason.

When I learned that how I handled a situation with my kid was discussed in a negative and critical way, that did bother me.

I think when it is that malignant sort, it is just as vile as everyone says.

It's not a total deal-breaker for me, though. Maybe because I worry that this stance would be too hypocritical.

Gwen, I think you hit the nail on the head.

Chani, I agree that it's a question of honor to maintain a confidence.

My question would be: if it isn't stated that it's a confidence, and it falls into a nebulous territory, what about when someone relays info, unknowing the sharer will perceive it as gossiping and betraying confidence? KWIM?

Suz, LM and Kyla bring up the Internet angle...with experience, which is interesting.

WhyMommy recently wrote that the blogosphere isn't all bad in response to an editorial in the Post.

I wonder what prompts people to employ anonymity and
thailandchani said…
My question would be: if it isn't stated that it's a confidence, and it falls into a nebulous territory, what about when someone relays info, unknowing the sharer will perceive it as gossiping and betraying confidence? KWIM?

I can see where that one might seem ambiguous. My position is this: If someone doesn't say "would you let so-and-so know such-and-such", I don't repeat it.

Sometimes I've asked permission to repeat something. "Can I tell JoJo about your new job?"

It's just easier and cleaner that way and doesn't run any risk of inadvertently stepping on someone's toes.

As for me, I just prefer people don't discuss me behind my back.I have a hard time ever trusting someone again, once that's been violated. There are far more interesting topics for people to explore with each other. There's really no reason for anyone to be discussing me unless it's in relation to a joint project or something public in which case it would probably be a group discussion anyway.
painted maypole said…
this made me think of this song:

haven't you heard
by Lost and Found

My, haven't you heard?
My, haven't you heard?

Yeah, well, I'm so surprised to see you
Up and out of bed
I guess you haven't heard yet
That last week you were found dead
Yeah, I heard it from the one
Who heard it from the one who knew
The one who heard it from the one
Who never checked with you
I hesitate to mention it
You know how these things spread
But just between the two of us
Here's what someone said
They said,

My, haven't you heard?
My, haven't you heard?

It was the rumor of a stranger
We assumed that it was true
It never crossed our minds
To ever call and check with you
We just announced it at our meetings
We prayed for your soul
We waited for the nature of the beast
To take its toll
Now if we didn't love you
We wouldn't make it known
We're just minding random business
Cuz we've got none of our own
I say

My, haven't you heard?
My, haven't you heard?

I hardly can believe it
And I hope it isn't so
I heard it from a person
Who said he didn't know
The others that I've shared it with
They've heard the rumor too
And now it really doesn't
Even matter if it's true
So just between the two of us,
I'll tell you what I'll do
Go ahead, admit you're dead
I'll say I never talked to you

My, haven't you heard?
My, haven't you heard?
IzzyMom said…
What an interesting post, Julie. Lots to think about.

(Ha! I sound like a comment spammer. "A most interesting site you have with many good posts")
Julie @ Letter9 said…
I love the italicized conversation you include at the beginning of your post. Sounds like a conversation between me and my sister about my mom. : )


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