Gossip, privacy: second thoughts…

by Yule Heibel on February 28, 2007

Mobile Gossip Annotated

Once again I’m using diigo.com to blog an about an article I read — it’s a nifty feature (and if a reader wants a diigo invite, let me know and I’ll send you one).So, just quickly: I might have an article coming out in the March issue of Focus Magazine (a local Victoria publication), which deals with a public square downtown (Centennial Square). I’m very critical of the square, which I describe as a child of a kind of “suburban thinking” saturated planning — the kind that made the car its number one priority. I try to explain how, in visual terms, the architecture and public space that results from this caters to the automobile, and how it leaves the actual pedestrian literally at a loss (without direction, for only cars on roads matter, and roads have direction — pedestrians, ambling aimlessly, do not fit into the scheme).
I also discuss how automobiles expanded in a curious way our notion(s) of privacy. That is, cars create privacy bubbles around individuals, effectively removing them from the public realm even when these individuals are in public, i.e., in the city. And I also wrote about other “technological” extensions, ones that we grapple with currently: the ubiquitous iPod, which creates a musical privacy bubble for the wearer, or …the cell phone, which allows any individual to drop out of public space and into a virtual private space, lickety-split.But then I read the following article, excerpted below, “Evolution, Alienation and Gossip; The role of mobile telecommunications in the 21st century,” by Kate Fox. And I’m forced to think about cell phones as a two-edged kind of thing — a sword that cuts both ways. It can remove individuals from the public sphere, but it can also connect that individual (obviously!) with other individuals — who happen simply to be somewhere else. From the article:
Gossip is the human equivalent of ‘social grooming’ among primates, which has been shown to stimulate production of endorphins, relieving stress and boosting the immune system. Two-thirds of all human conversation is gossip, because this ‘vocal grooming’ is essential to our social, psychological and physical well-being. Mobiles facilitate gossip. Mobiles have increased and enhanced this vital therapeutic activity, by allowing us to gossip ‘anytime, anyplace, anywhere’ and to text as well as talk. Mobile gossip is an effective and important new stress-buster.
The space-age technology of mobile phones has allowed us to return to the more natural and humane communication patterns of pre-industrial society, when we lived in small, stable communities, and enjoyed frequent ‘grooming talk’ with a tightly integrated social network. In the fast-paced modern world, we had become severely restricted in both the quantity and quality of communication with our social network. Mobile gossip restores our sense of connection and community, and provides an antidote to the pressures and alienation of modern life. Mobiles are a ‘social lifeline’ in a fragmented and isolating world.
Texting is particularly important in maintaining contact with a wide social network – allows us to maintain social bonds even when we do not have the time, energy, inclination or budget for calls or visits. Texting re-creates the brief, frequent, spontaneous ‘connections’ with members of our social network that characterised the small communities of pre-industrial times.
Texting helps teenagers (and some adult males) to overcome awkwardness and inhibitions and to develop social and communication skills – they communicate with more people, and more frequently, than they did before mobiles.
Enjoyment of gossip is also about the thrill of risk-taking, doing something a bit naughty, talking about people’s ‘private’ lives

…’negative gossip’ has clear social benefits in terms of rule-learning and social bonding.

I guess the bottom line is that we’re really in a spot right now where we need to think creatively and differently about what public space and privacy and all those notions of intimacy, home, street, and interpersonal relationships mean, how they’re configured, and how — in configuring — they in turn shape the meanings we give to the above-named terms in the first place.

PS: now that I’m getting the hang of using diigo.com to blog, I think I’ll use it regularly. What a great feature. Note, though: I still “diigo” 99.9% of my bookmarks & annotiations “privately” (i.e., they’re not public), which I guess figures into the privacy/ public sphere discussion, and also marks me as “old school” in a way. It also means that if you follow my links (above: “annotated”) to my diigo account, you won’t see much since the vast majority of my 702 (so far) bookmarked articles are not publicly visible…


Mahesh Lalwani February 28, 2007 at 4:45 am

Exactly. That’s why – unlike other web-based social networking sites that instigate initial connections via email – ccube.com allows you to actually hear a member’s voice over the phone before learning anything else about them.

Ccube.com is the mobile social network where people find and connect over the phone – in a way that is safe, immediate, personal and truly mobile.

It’s a more efficient way to increase your odds of making a lasting social connection. And a more personal one, too.

melanie March 1, 2007 at 4:30 am

I think you should stick with your first instinct. When you see three people walking down the street together or sitting at a restaurant table and all of them are talking to other people on the phone, you know that this is not about social grooming. This is about being in a private bubble even when you are patently in ‘society’.

I have noticed that in several Asian countries I frequently visit there is no rule about turning the phone off when you’re in a meeting. It’s a rule that is collapsing here in Australia too (I even forgot to switch my phone off in class today! I think I’ve picked this habit up from my students). I have noticed that leaving the phone on in meetings that are seen as important is a sign of status. So I think that people who are talking on the phone or texting while in the company of others are in fact only signalling their status to the people whose company they are actually sharing. It is not social grooming, it is a status marker.

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