Social media is gossip (that’s why it works)

This is a repost of something I wrote about a year and a half ago, April 2009. I’m putting it up again partly because I like this one but also because I recently saw remarks made by Andrew Stanton of PIXAR vaguely touching on the same idea, including his comment “Storytelling is joke telling.” It is. It’s also gossip.

Gossip - Norman RockwellI had lunch in downtown Fredericton yesterday and while I had my laptop with me and a wi-fi connection I didn’t do much with them. The day was beautiful and I just wanted to sit and watch the world. As I did, I noticed a few things. For lack of a better phrase, let’s call it old school media and communication – not what we call social media.

There were signs in windows and posters on poles. In the restaurant/pub where I sat, I saw a person or two come in asking if they had anything like a bulletin board where they could post something about an event.

I also saw one of the servers, missing the beautiful day outside, ask people what tomorrow’s weather was expected to be like. She could easily have asked me to check online using my laptop or any of the many other customers with their handhelds, all of whom could have connected and found out quickly.

She didn’t. She asked people. The information passed verbally.

She didn’t check for their bona fides either. She didn’t ask them if they worked for Environment Canada or if they were meteorologists. She just asked and took what they said as what tomorrow’s weather would be.

All of this reminded me that as seemingly ubiquitous social media appears, and more generally the web, they don’t operate in isolation. There are still people, including ourselves, who read papers and posters and talk to one another. All things work in concert. And that reminded me of what Peter Morville talks about in one section of his 2005 book Ambient Findability.

Despite huge investments in information and communication technology, we still rely heavily on person-to-person networks known as ‘the grapevine.’ And we often trust this ‘unofficial news’ more than the ‘official story.’ Of course, we’ve co-opted the technology infrastructure, extended the locus of gossip from the water cooler to cyberspace — email, instant messaging, cell phones, text messaging, listservs, weblogs — at the heart of many of today’s killer applications lies the power and prevalence of gossip. It may not be ideal with respect to ethics or efficiency, but it’s the way people are wired, and the blueprint is ancient and immutable.

I had a friend years ago but over time lost contact with him. One day, also years ago, I heard that he had died. I only vaguely remember this, but I recall it was in conversation. So for years I’ve been believing he was dead. Imagine my surprise when I got a friend request from him recently on Facebook.

The point is that I believed he was dead based on what I heard in conversation (gossip) and never questioned it. It never even occurred to me to question it.

An example of gossip in social media is the recent Amazon brouhaha, which I’ve gone on about too much already. It’s enough to say that using Twitter it developed with little or no real information, just people saying, “Did you hear what they did?”

Is gossip a good state of affairs? Probably not but, as Morville says it’s, “…the way people are wired, and the blueprint is ancient and immutable.” In other words, it’s a reality. And also why Facebook, Twitter and all the others succeed. We can talk about news, communication, utility and all the possibilities these tools represent but one of the primary reasons they achieve mass popularity is gossip.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we’re all just standing in line at the grocery store chatting with one another. What distinguishes us as individuals is what we choose to chat about.

(But really, who can resist good bit of juicy gossip?)