Gossip has always been with us, says author Joseph Epstein, but the internet has made it faster and meaner
GOSSIP HAS LONG had ferociously bad press. But the major rap against it, that it is trivial, is no longer the main thing to be said about it, if ever it was. For gossip has come to play a larger and larger role in public life in ways that can thrum with significance and odd side effects.
Until the invention and widespread use of the Internet, gossip could be conveniently divided between private and public spheres. Private gossip, the engine of English novels from Jane Austen to Barbara Pym, is largely restricted to include friends (and enemies) and acquaintances. Public gossip, which has been around since the printing press, is about people who appear in print or on radio or television, broadcast for the titillation of the larger world. To qualify for public gossip, one formerly had to have achieved some measure of fame or notoriety. But with the advent of the Internet, one can arrive at notoriety without having first achieved anything. And like the distinction between gossip and news, that between the private and the public has become blurred in the digital age.
“The Internet,” writes legal scholar Daniel J. Solove, “is transforming the nature and effects of gossip.” In his book The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet, Solove recounts the story of an insensitive remark that appeared online, supposedly spoken by the clothing designer Tommy Hilfiger: “If I had known that African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians would buy my clothes, I would not have made them so nice.” Hilfiger is also supposed to have confirmed that he made this most impolitic remark on Oprah, causing Ms. Winfrey to throw him off her show and tell her audience not to buy his clothes. The effect of this caused Hilfiger’s business to slump drastically. The problem is that Tommy Hilfiger never made the remark, nor had he ever appeared on Oprah. But the story was out there in cyberspace; you will find it is still out there today.