It's Good to Gossip

Oh, good grief! BT Cellnet has sponsored a colony of tame social scientists to prove to us scientifically that it's good to gossip on mobile phones.

In fact, they've done no such thing. What BT Cellnet have really done is give the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) a bit of money, so that SIRC can give BT Cellnet a bit of harmless, human-interest science publicity masquarading as scientific research. The plan seems to have worked: the BBC wrote about it, and now I am.

The research in question has been published in the SIRC report Evolution, Alienation and Gossip—the role of mobile telecommunications in the 21st century by Kate Fox. Here are some edited highlights:

  • Gossip is the human equivalent of 'social grooming' among primates… 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.
  • The space-age technology of mobile phones has allowed us to return to the more natural and humane communication patterns of pre-industrial society… 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.
  • Women use their mobile phones as 'symbolic bodyguards' when feeling vulnerable in public places.
  • In the beginning was the word, and the word, if the evolutionary psychologists are right, tended mainly to be used to form sentences such as "Hey, guess what I heard about Og?!", "Don't tell anyone, but I think Og and Ogga may be splitting up!" and "I shouldn't tell you this, but Og tried to get off with me at the rain-dance last night!"—or even "Ogga is still wearing that deeply uncool bone necklace—soo Lower Paleolithic, don't you think?"
  • Gossip is, and always has been, good for us—essential to our social, psychological and even physical well-being. The mobile phone, by facilitating therapeutic gossip in an alienating and fragmented modern world, is helping us to cope, adapt and survive.

Go on, call me a killjoy, I dare you! Yes, I know it's only supposed to be a bit of harmless fun (I suspect even the social scientists who carried out the research were able to work that one out), but isn't it also incredibly dangerous? Just think about it:

  • a company which sells mobile phones has sponsored some scientists, who have carried out a bit of research to show that using mobile phones is good for us. Do you seriously believe they would come up with (let alone publish) any other conclusion?
  • although the report gives the caveat (quoted above), if the evolutionary psychologists are right, it also acknowledges that it owes most of its findings on gossip to the work of psychologist Robin Dunbar, who believes gossip is part of our evolutionary hard-wiring. i.e. Its findings are based on the assumption that evolutionary psychologists are right! That's one hell of an assumption!
  • is it any wonder that people seem to be becoming less and less trusting of science, when rubbish like this is being passed off (and accepted) as serious science?

To give SIRC some credit(!), at least they didn't try to explain mobile phones' popularity by their usefulness for replicating memes… But perhaps BT Cellnet wouldn't have liked that: it does sound a bit negative.

Richard Carter

A fat, bearded chap with a Charles Darwin fixation.

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