We gossip today as people gossiped centuries ago. But the volume and speed of information overwhelm us — the downside of the digital revolution.

information
“Flemish Proverbs,” by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (Wikimedia Commons)

By Marshall Cartwright

The year is 1789. You and I pace under a large chestnut tree while awaiting a gathering near the Palais Royal in Paris. What are we waiting for? Delivery of the latest news. What else are we hoping for? A revolution.

Under this tree, court gossip from the distant palace of Versailles trickles down the branches of the social hierarchy, eventually falling on the ears of Parisian commoners.

Some mornings, emissaries from abroad bring news of Versailles from outside the kingdom, where printing stations have not yet been destroyed. Other days, large groups gather to hear whispers from palace courtesans who make their way to the tree.

Fast forward to 2018. Despite a technological revolution, everything — and nothing — has changed.

Over the past two and a half centuries, the dissemination of information has become better, faster and more targeted. But the content we share has stayed remarkably constant.

We have entered “hyper history.”

In the 1750s, the French public was obsessed with Louis XV’s affair with Madame de Barry. A popular conspiracy theory held that during a crop shortage, the king’s brothers had hoarded grain. Others were certain the king was drinking children’s blood to cure him of leprosy.

More than two centuries later, similarities abound. A U.S. president’s affairs make sordid headlines. A man fires shots at a local pizzeria because he believes the leaders of a U.S. political party are operating a child sex ring from there. Conspiracy theorists push a story that the U.S. government decided not to use an anti-hurricane machine to stop a devastating storm.

Unfortunately, the focus of popular human interest has not progressed as far as we might have hoped. Extramarital affairs, ludicrous urban myths and nonsensical politics continue to play out in our social theater.

From the printing press to news applications, from hardcover books to Kindles, from the silver screen to the one we now carry in our pockets, media consumption has been revolutionized by technology. But what gets peddled has not.

Stormy Daniels is the Madame de Barry of 2018, while Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen embody greed.

We have entered “hyper history,” where news is disseminated so quickly that we barely have time to absorb it. Until recently, history detailed decades, centuries and epochs. Today, history is measured in seconds, resulting in collective whiplash.

It’s hard to lead a revolution when it’s practically impossible to separate truth from opinion and the information coming at us is too voluminous to process. Social media is now our virtual chestnut tree, and we must prune its branches to separate fact from fiction.

Above 150, relations break down.

In his book “Sapiens,” Yuval Hariri proposes two theories of communication. First, early humans learned to communicate among themselves so they could identify threats and protect themselves. Second, our ability to share complex ideas stems from the need to communicate about threats within a group.

Gossip, in his view, is intra-group communication that has played an important role in our evolution. We gossip to ensure our neighbors are safe to live around, that our spouses are loyal and that the people we depend on are who they say they are. We gossip to feel safe in our communities.

In a 2014 study, a team from the University of Toronto showed that “the spread of reputational information through gossip can mitigate egoistic behavior by facilitating partner selection.”

But here’s the catch. Research shows that “the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals,” according to Hariri. Above 150, relations break down.

In a 2016 study, University of Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar found that “the average number of friends on Facebook approximates the natural size of personal social networks – about 150 individuals.”

Dunbar found “that the constraints that limit the number of friends we can have in the everyday offline world also limit the number we have online … because friendships ultimately require occasional face-to-face interaction if they are to be maintained over time.”

A steady diet of insecurity, misinformation and fear

So, what does that say about how humans communicate today?

According to Dunbar, while technology has changed, our brains limit the size of social networks we can juggle effectively.

But the competition for our attention has increased dramatically. We may be able to maintain a social group of only 150, but the amount of information that comes with each individual is exponentially greater. Whether we pay attention to someone in our group depends on how strongly a post grabs our attention. It is easier in the digital world to jump from group to group or change the makeup of our social network.

This attention competition is not qualitatively different from the gossip of past. But we can’t keep up with the enormous volume of gossip, the amount of available information or the speed at which new stories arise and old ones are forgotten.

When humans lived in smaller groups, gossip anchored an individual in the community and imposed structure, certainty and uniform behavior. We knew the people with whom we interacted. A person delivered news either in writing or by word of mouth, and people talked with each other to form opinions and exchange ideas.

Your personal reputation and credibility were on the line, and those you interacted with likely played important economic or support roles in your life. You might meet them on the street or shop in their stores. People in social networks shared location and community.

Today, we live in potential contact with millions of people. We talk about online communities, but we swim in an ocean of information compared the puddles of centuries past.

Our gossip no longer affords us security, certainty or uniformity because it is limitless in potential and behavior online entails few consequences. The virtual communities we form are fleeting and insubstantial.

We can’t walk next door to borrow a cup of sugar from our online networks or exchange meaningful ideas under a chestnut tree. The gossip that feeds the Internet erodes our roots. Despite the superficial likes and hearts, it provides us with a steady diet of insecurity, misinformation and fear.


Marshall Cartwright is studying at New York University. He is a reformed hockey player, now focusing on neuroscience, the Internet and how social media can do a better job of bringing us together instead of driving us apart.

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