Gossip is widely assumed to be, by definition, frivolous, erroneous, and/or malicious.

Call it “orally transmitted information” and it gets more respect.

My first few years on Martha’s Vineyard I didn’t believe people who said they rarely read the local papers. How could they possibly know what was going on?

In part, this was because I worked for one of those papers. My weeks were organized around its schedule: on Monday began the rush to deadline, culminating late Wednesday afternoon when “the boards” were hand-carried to boat or plane or (later) digitally transmitted to the off-island printer. (This was before it and just about every other news outlet was on the web and could publish anything at any time.)

In part, I hadn’t been around long enough and wasn’t well connected enough to get my info by osmosis, that is, through the grapevine.

Tendrils of the grapevine did work their way into the newspaper office. When I was features editor, that’s how I got plenty of story ideas. I came to realize PDQ that there was more to most stories than what appeared in print. Reporters and editors had to verify facts and make allowances for erroneous perceptions and outright grudges.

The newspaper office was one node on the grapevine. Stories flowed in, stories flowed out — some of them orally, the way they flowed in, and others in print, typed, edited, and checked for accuracy.

With gossip there are no editors. It’s all up to the teller and the listener — the teller-listener, I should say, because everyone on the grapevine both hears stories and passes them on. We learn who’s reliable, who tends to exaggerate, who has a long-standing feud going with who else that might affect the story s/he tells, and so on. Maybe we learn how to check things out without letting too many cats out of the bag. At the very least we learn to recognize stories that might blow up in our faces if we pass them on.

Nodes develop where people pass through and hang around long enough to talk. The town post offices, grocery stores, hairdressing salons, the hospital . . . In Cynthia Riggs’s Martha’s Vineyard Mystery Series, sleuth Victoria Trumbull picks up a fair amount of information from the regulars on Alley’s porch. These days the porch is so crammed with bright-colored goods for the summer trade that there’s barely room to lounge around, but people still manage.

Business executives and politicians are notorious for doing it on the golf course, though what they do generally isn’t called gossip. Gossip is associated with women; golf is associated with men. Men talk shop. Women gossip.

After I’d been on Facebook a few weeks, I started calling it “the grapevine on steroids.” Information passes to dozens, maybe hundreds, maybe thousands of people at once. I post regularly in a political group that has 55,000+ members. The Islanders Talk group has about 9,500, most of whom live here and any of whom I could run into at the grocery store or PO.

At the same time, when we post on social media, we’re often in the privacy of our own homes. It may feel like Alley’s porch or the post office, but it’s more like getting up onstage at the Performing Arts Center. The Islanders Talk group has 12 times more members than the PAC can hold. Think about it.

Facebook, and social media more generally, unlike the grapevine also leave a written record. We can delete our own posts and posts on our timeline, but we can’t be sure they’re gone for good. Public figures who should have learned better by now still haven’t figured this out.

“Fake news” is big news these days, and with good reason: it was surely a factor in last year’s presidential election, and in the polarization that’s afflicting the country. On Facebook, I don’t see all that much blatantly fake news, but I do see plenty of repackaged and distorted news with clickbait headlines that misrepresent the story. Just like it’s possible to not pass on a story if we distrust the teller or think it might do harm, we are capable of not sharing links to stories that we haven’t bothered to read.

One nasty thing about both malicious gossip and misleading or downright fake news is that once it lodges in your head, it doesn’t disappear, even if you distrust the source and are 99% sure it’s not true.

I’m on a tear about this. The forces using social media to sow dissension are smart. They count on people to uncritically share bogus information because it could be true or because it confirms their assumptions. The other day I saw a meme that claimed Melania Trump had stolen her post-Charlottesville remarks from Michelle Obama. I smelled a rat. A quick Google search turned up zero evidence that Michelle Obama had ever said those words, or anything close, on the day she was said to have said them, or on any other day. I passed that on to the two people who were sharing the meme. I was glad to see (1) that I wasn’t the only one who had smelled a rat, and (2) that both posters deleted the meme.

Circulating unverified information is like littering. Trashing the landscape, physical or virtual, has ugly results. Some rumors are like lit cigarettes: toss them out the window and they may do serious harm. Look before you leap. Check before you share.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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5 Responses to Gossip

  1. Jennie says:

    Well said, Susanna.


  2. And think of the savings in emotional energy…. There’s nothing more wasteful than finding yourself stressing over something unnecessary because it wasn’t true!


  3. Lynn Khosla says:

    Well said! Thank you for taking the time to so articulately express this important advisory.


  4. Karen says:

    Great advice! More poignant than ever…


  5. Shirley says:

    Good point, Susanna – always check your source before passing on…….


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