gossiping about ourselves



documentary © Raffaella Loro

On Friday, after a delightful lunch with my chum-of-all-chums, I rushed to the downtown university campus for a lecture on mediated gossip that was being given as part of the University of Alberta's Communications and Technology Research Symposium. The visiting scholar, Professor Leopoldina Fortunati, from the University of Udine, was to speak about reflections on mediated gossip, particularly, how the use of ICTs (information and communication technologies) has modified one particular register of communication: gossip.

The lecture wasn't exactly what I thought it would be. Although interesting, did not really provide me with the level of depth about how information and communication technologies actually mediate gossip. That's the problem with relatively short lectures... there is much time spent covering the background information about a particular study or subject - and not enough time and depth exploring the real topic. But that disconnect may also be a result of an incorrect description of the scholar's presentation, we're promised more than is actually intended to be delivered due to time constraints or the efforts of the event organizers to make a talk 'fit' both thematically and within an allotted time slot. I've been to a few lectures in the past where the presentation given did not necessarily correlate with the description that had been released to the public. However, despite this minor discrepancy the lecture did still provide me with some points for discussion.

A few months back I wrote a short post about how I sometimes feel that the real me is a hybrid of my physical self and my online self. I was immediately reminded of this post when Dr. Fortunati spoke about the social presentation of self as a combination of the front-stage self and the back-stage self. Basically, we present different parts of our personality depending on our social sphere. We maintain a series of different social spheres with varying levels of proximity. So, if a person is part of a social circle that is closer to us we reveal more about ourselves and so on. Basically we have different types of relationships with people from our various social circles. Our family knows certain things about us, our friends know something different, our coworkers something different once again. There may be some overlapping information (imagine a Venn diagram representing the different social circles we interact with), but generally we try to keep these circles separate and distinct. Our relationships with other people within these groups is based on what we know and what we don't know about each other. This weave of information gives a relationship its tone, amplitude, and depth. However, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a distinction between these social circles in a world where information, both personal and professional, becomes increasingly available on the internet. This blurring of the lines creates a discontinuity of self and makes it difficult for others to decode what what we communicate. Take for instance the overused example of an employer coming across something online about a potential employee and that information changing their perception of that individual. Then of course there is the example of meeting someone new, befriending them on facebook, and through their profile and other assorted links discovering all sorts of information about that individual that you would have never have known before (or at least not known that quickly). So what does this have to do with gossip you might ask... well plenty, if you think of all this information that we share online about ourselves to be gossip - and not necessarily gossip of the malicious kind. Gossip, according to Fortunati, is a communicative game with a strong dimension of amusement and entertainment (but the game can be cruel). Gossip may not advance true knowledge, but it does enhance common thinking and social cohesion. As information and communication technology has developed, particularly in the explosion of social media in the past few years, we have begun to shift our socializing to the digital sphere. We continue to gossip about ourselves, but now we face the challenge of how to deal with increased access to gossip as well as the impact of longevity.

There were a few other key points that I found to be of interest, in particular Fortunati's comment how in a world where neighbours and acquaintances are part of an anonymous crowd, people are turning to their neighbour substitutes. These substitutes could be celebrities, random strangers online, or the profiles of individuals we once knew or people that we've had fleeting contact with in the physical world but have befriended online. This comment is worthy of a post all on its own, but I'm tired and don't think I have it in me to write anymore today. Maybe another day... I don't even know if anyone reads this gossip rag. Say hello in the comments if you do. You can remain anonymous - maybe you can just indicate if we actually know each other in the real world. That would be an interesting experiment...

Update: Just discovered that there is a PDF version of Fortunati's paper that was the basis for her presentation. I'll have to read it.


  1. Your blog always gives me something interesting to contemplate on a regular basis. Thank you for keeping my brain active and from turning to mush.