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The Social Function of the (Annoying) Cryptic Status Update

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Men (unknown) having an afternoon chat in a rice paddy outside Yogyakarta

Many of you can relate to the irksome experience of scanning through Facebook status updates and landing on one that is so cryptic that it becomes undecipherable: “I can’t believe that just happened!” or “Just made a huge mistake, what now?”   The number of blog posts dedicated to listing the insufferable act of “vaguebooking” as one of the top 10 most annoying Facebook habits attests to that. Often decried as being an immature and thinly veiled attempt by teenaged girls to garner attention from their peers, the trend has mostly been dismissed as unnecessary and vain. Yet to people who do not live in the world of “networked individualism” (Rainie and Wellman 2012), where the “loose” and “fragmented” nature of their social networks seem to somewhat limit the impact of social media posts, the practice has a more concrete role.

In urban neighbourhoods like Kampoeng Cyber, where close-knit social networks based on family and neighbourship thrive alongside the global relaxing of group ties in favour of flexible networks, social media content becomes the subject of conversation. For Javanese people living in kampung, or densely populated urban communities that ideally (though not necessarily) value closeness and sociability, status updates become embedded in a broader communicative system that incorporates various media. Thus, rather than being isolated as a case of poor use of one particular medium, Facebook, the social value of vague status updates may better be located in the totality of communicative options available to the poster (see Miller and Madianou on polymedia).

The best way of illustrating this, from my experience so far, is by looking at gossip. The word gossip usually evokes the image of shifty-eyed interlocutors (usually women) leaning in for whispers and quieting down at the approach of the victim of their dubious tales. While usually garnering a negative connotation for causing social rifts and ruining reputations, scholars have also attributed it to promoting social cohesion (by finding a scapegoat), and serving individual interests (Besnier 2009). From this view, the political side of gossip allows poor, marginalized, or otherwise disadvantaged people the opportunity to discretely voice concerns and affect social outcomes, sometimes to their own benefit, without fear of direct conflict.

My own experience as a foreign woman entering a somewhat conservative neighbourhood has involved a failure of impression management, resulting in becoming the object of gossip. Despite what I would interpret to be excessive efforts of discretion and politeness, many of my actions (speaking to men, commenting on male friends’ statuses, or briefly leaving the country) have been interpreted as unseemly for a woman, and have relegated me to a position of cautionary acceptance among a few people in the neighbourhood.

The gossip that has fueled this precarious position has made use of various media for its dissemination, including face-to-face conversation and Facebook. While women have at times made indirect comments to me insinuating, falsely, that I had “many boyfriends”, other informants have told me that they had received private Facebook messages lying to them about how I had been text messaging with certain men (an almost sure sign of flirtation if with someone of the opposite gender).

But the most telling expansion of gossip through Facebook came through a status update of someone who hinted, but didn’t explicitly state, that people who went out on Saturday evenings (which I often do, in search for food) were probably engaging in more naughty activities. The status update, to my dismay, was almost immediately deleted so that it couldn’t be analyzed in more detail. But it revealed something about how gossip is filtered indirectly by innuendo through various media, not just whispers and winks.

For example, in another instance, one informant became irritated when they heard through the grapevine that certain members of the community had been gossiping about them.  Instead of addressing the situation directly and risking conflict, they posted a vague status update deploring the practice of talking behind other people’s backs as a waste of time, and an indication that those who engage in it have nothing better to do. No names or context were mentioned. I was surprised to learn that this almost immediately yielded a face-to-face apology from one of the perpetrators, who became aware of the unpleasant effects of gossip on its targets. This is something that seems to contrast with the notion of the anonymous urbanite whose diffused social networks don’t engender the kind of dense, constant, and close interaction found in Kampoeng Cyber, where status updates enter into the broader repertoire of communicative practices.

Watching the politics of gossip unfold in this neighbourhood has allowed me to see how the “encryption” of status updates plays into a social system that privileges social inclusion as a main conduit of access to information. The status updates don’t bring any new information to the fore, but bring those who are already in-the-know closer together, and further alienates those who are not. In other words, if you don’t understand my status update, you probably aren’t close enough to me socially to have already been privy to the context necessary for its decoding. Even worse, if you’re too far out of too many circles, your marginalization makes you an easy target for gossip.

And this, methodologically, is one of the greatest challenges for a budding anthropologist trying to decipher the fast moving conveyor belt of status updates that grace Facebook daily. While gaining trust has been tenuous at best, at worst, it has forced me to learn and to write about gossip from the target’s perspective.

By Jessika Tremblay

References

Besnier, Niko

2009 Gossip and the Everyday Production ofPpolitics. University of Hawaii Press.

Rainiee, Lee, and Barry Wellman

2012 Networked: The New Social Operating System. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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