Mr. Personality

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Digital Chit Chat

Is social media revolutionizing gossip?

One of the many reasons for the popularity of Facebook is that it has made gossip much more accessible. Indeed, we no longer need to hide at the end of the corridor or shut our office door: it is simply enough to log on and chat. Moreover, we can now passively contribute to gossip by reading other people's updates, feeds, and tweets. 

Unsurprisingly, there is now a big quest for making sense of these data. Text analytics (coding, organizing, and interpreting qualitative or unsurtuctured data) is the latest obsession of the data miners. Digital marketing has long attempted to produce smart algorithms for decoding gossip. Big companies employ students to scan forums and chat rooms to identify what people are saying about their brands. Ironically, they also pay (the same) students to spread positive messages about them online, which (again, the same) students can then analyze.

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This obsession for decoding digital chit chat has now reached the more conservative and technophobic world of HR. Indeed, companies have realized that running monthly engagement surveys (i.e., in-house questionnaires to monitor people's job satisfaction levels) may only provide an incomplete picture of their employees' views. And they are right: if employees are spending so much time on social media, and if a great deal of that time is spent at work, it is not unlikely that they are talking about their jobs—and especially their bosses and colleagues.

Furthermore, given that 70% of employees are unhappy wit their jobs—in most cases, because they hate their bosses—it is not easy for managers to resist the temptation of analyzing employees' conversations to work out what they feel. Ten years ago, we may have been careful not to mention compromising stuff on a work e-mail; will this digital paranoia soon extend to social media?

Every day, more and more business blogs discuss the issue of online privacy and confidentiality. But let's face it, unless you are offline, it is now impossible to keep a secret. At the same time, digial communications make it easier than ever to share secrets with and for anyone. Indeed, the profile of online gossipers appears to be quite different from that of the traditional or "analogue" gossiper. Social media and e-mail make it a lot easier for introverted, reserved and non-impulsive people to share personal information. If you are shy, it is much easier to disclose online than face-to-face.

Although it is probably too early to judge the effects of the social media revolution on gossip, two things are clear: First, gossip has always enabled people to fulfil their affiliation need. Indeed, the universal need to get along is what causes us to bond with people—and there is often no quicker way of bonding with people (especially new acquaintances) than to spread malicious rumours about others. This is how we attempt to define the in-group from the out-group. Second, gossip will always play a central role in helping us fulfill our desire to know. As humans, we are curious creatures and few things are as interesting as other people. That is why Facebook has 850 million users (a number which will soon be outdated): it is the perfect place for studying other people.

And that is also why you manage to make it to the end of this blog!

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Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D., is a Professor of Business Psychology at UCL and NYU. He studies online dating, entrepreneurship, and consumer preferences. more...

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