Gossip Serves a Purpose in Community Development

posted on Sep 3, 04:48 PM in Design, Social Software

There is an article in the New York Times on August 16, 2005 that talks about how the phenomena of gossip, long considered merely the background noise of social interaction which serves no real purpose, has recently been shown to solidify the social rules of a society. According to the article, which is based on research by David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology and anthropology at the SUNY Binghamton,

”[Gossip] circulates crucial information about the behavior of others that cannot be published in an office manual. As often as it sullies reputations, psychologists say, gossip offers a foothold for newcomers in a group and a safety net for group members who feel in danger of falling out.

‘Gossip appears to be a very sophisticated, multifunctional interaction which is important in policing behaviors in a group and defining group membership.’”

These findings validate some of my research over the past 10 years in community behavior and interaction. It is often the smaller, more frequent, and possibly brief conversational interactions that define how a community relates to itself. Gossip, as it turns out, has almost a viral quality about it, whereby passing gossip from person to person carries almost no cost. Gossip can be the fastest means of transmitting an idea or thought from person to person within a group. It is essentially how ‘memes’ make their way through a society.

Gossip can also be a good indicator for social relationships. People who gossip with one another tend to have closer bonds, and the sharing of “secret” information, which is how most gossip is viewed, tends to reinforce personal relationships. (Though of course one can be branded when he or she gossips too much, there is a subtle balance between information passing and being a constant Gossip, and those people who avoid being branded are merely somewhat more careful in their gossiping behavior than others.) Looking at networks of social relationships often reveals that there is a concurrence between gossip and the closeness of a social bond. Conversely, tracking the flow of gossip through a community will often give a relatively accurate view of the underlying social network.

When creating online communities, it is often beneficial to enable the type of social interaction and communication that gossip requires. Having such a capability makes the online community both easier to become a part of, as well as provides a support structure for its members.